Srinagar: He stumbled on his way back and forth. Walking his daily walks, wearing the same old clothes he wore months ago. Or so revealed the grime and dirt they usually were rife with. He stunk. Wayfarers who saw him falling down on roadsides realised it as soon as they rushed to help him up.
To be back on his wavering feet, he pulled their arms or used his staff – a wooden, crude stick with a worn-out nub. He tried to gaze at his helpers, not knowing what direction to look at.
His eyes white in whole: like someone rubbed off those pupils leaving the area white but in complete darkness. He wasn’t a talker. Whatever little he spoke was barely comprehensible.
Gulam Ahmad Shala, in his 70s, was a regular sight on the streets of Jawahar Nagar, less than a kilometre away from the city-centre in Srinagar. Totally blind, his life was an awful struggle. He was not a beggar but seeing his crouched, frail built-up, strangers took him for one.
That was until September last year when Gulam fell ill, only to be laid into his grave a few weeks later.
“He was in a bad condition. I think death was a relief for him,” said Aijaz Ahmad Mir, Gulam’s neighbour.
Gulam, Aijaz said, wasn’t always blind. He could see. He worked as an apprentice to a person who was employed as a gardener by the agriculture department. In return of a few bucks, Gulam would do the work the person got paid for.
He did so for many years until he realised he could earn much more selling whatnots on his small stall in the nearby Lal Mandi area.
“Soon after that, he developed some problem in his eyes. His sight started failing and around seven to eight years ago, he became completely blind,” said Aijaz.
Gulam’s turmoil had begun. From a hardworking, self-reliant person, Gulam now needed a hand to even walk a few steps.
The hand he could seek and get only from strangers on the road.
“He never married. Nobody knows why. His parents had been long dead. He was living with his late elder brother’s sons. They had completely ignored him since he lost his eyesight. The only thing they did was feed him once or twice a day. I had seen him wearing the same clothes for months together,” Aijaz narrated.
Gulam’s nephews, Aijaz said, are well-settled.
“One has set up his own business while another has a government job,” he said.
“Many times, the local masjid committee intervened telling the family that they should take care of him. But his fate remained the same. Each day he used to amble on the street, back and forth, a dozen times,” he said.
The nephews were not willing to talk about their dead uncle.
The status quo
Gulam, until his death, was among the 66,448 souls – 35,656 males, 30,792 females – in Jammu & Kashmir, who, as per the 2011 census, were blind.
As he did, thousands of blind people struggle every day in the absence of any institutional support.
The Jammu and Kashmir government’s social welfare department says its job is to “address problems of weaker sections of the society including those with physical disabilities”.
The department, however, has no scheme or programme specifically catering to the visually impaired people.
Last year in January, Sajad Lone, who then was the Minister of Social Welfare, had said that “blind and other physically challenged people are not disabled”.
“They are the special children of God who have been blessed with special abilities and are doing a great job in every sphere of life,” Sajad then said during a function his department had organised at Residential School for Blind (RSB) in Jammu to celebrate the 209th birth anniversary of Louis Braille.
The school where Sajad had delivered his speech is one among just two such institutions for the blind in the entire state.
The intake capacity of the schools is disappointing. The RSB boys’ school, which is supported by the Social Welfare Department, can take just 40 such children.
The other Louie Braille Memorial Residential School for Sightless Girls is run by one NGO National Federation of the Blind of India and has around 30 such female students enrolled at present.
Ram Dass Dubey, a retired teacher and the coordinator of the RSB, is himself blind. He explains the pathetic state of affairs.
“For years now, I must have written dozens of letters to the Social Welfare Department as well as the concerned ministers about increasing the intake capacity in the boys’ school. I have around 100 applications of the students who wish to enrol in it. But the government’s response has been very cold,” he said.
“I know how difficult it is for a blind person to compete with others. So I am trying my best to give them the necessary training and education. But there is hardly any support from the government. It is the people’s donation that has kept the school running,” Dubey said.
He said that even the meagre pension of around Rs 1,000 per month the blind are supposed to get does not reach the right people.
“People deposit fake certificates to register and those who really deserve it are left behind,” Dubey said.
The issue of pendency of pension cases, he said, is also very huge.
“The last time I knew, at least 30,000 to 35,000 such cases were pending,” Dubey said.
Mufti Nazir Qasmi, the head of Darul Uloom Raheemiya, the largest Islamic seminary in Jammu and Kashmir considers the issue of blind people in Jammu and Kashmir graver than those of orphans.
“We usually consider the large number of orphans a big social issue in Kashmir. But I believe most of those orphans eventually grow up and are able to take hold of their lives. In my opinion, the huge population of blinds in Kashmir, the way they are harassed by their own families, the way their kin snatch their properties, and the way they hardly have any social support here is a more serious issue,” Mufti Qasmi said.
He said he received many phone calls from blind people who tell him the stories of their hardship and struggle.
“I received a call from a person who seemed very dejected. He told me that his brother had taken away his share of the property and was not treating him well. They had snatched every penny that was kept for him and the person had to beg for his survival. He said he did not see any chance of finding work, getting married or being settled in his life,” Qasmi said.
In absence of any social or governmental support, he added, many blind people were coaxed to leave Kashmir and go to other states by “NGOs, or religious missionary groups”.
“These groups promise food, shelter and some basic training for a livelihood to the blind. God knows whether or not they trade the blinds’ faith for it,” he said.
Qasmi said that “many are trapped and forced to beg by the mafia outside the state”.
Data sketches grim picture
From multiple official sources in the Jammu and Kashmir social welfare department, it has been learnt that at least 45,000 pension cases of the disabled are pending.
Sources revealed that out of 3.61 lakh disabled in Jammu and Kashmir, only 82,000 were covered by the pension scheme until January 2019.
The census data shows that 67 percent of the total number of disabled is unemployed. While the unemployment status of the blind is not separately available, it would be safe to say that their unemployment percentage would be equal if not more.
Talk of finding a life partner, 1.56 lakh of the 3.61 lakh disabled are unmarried. A total of 80,378 of these unmarried are in the age group 15-59. Here again, though the number of blind-unmarried is not known, it is bound to be similar or even higher.
About 2.10 lakh of the disabled are completely illiterate. Of the remaining 1.5 lakh, 86,272 have not gone beyond class 10.
Literacy among the blind is far challenging than those with other forms of disability and, as such, in that aspect as well, the numbers are bound to be disappointing.
What's on paper vs ground reality
It took Jammu and Kashmir 11 years to pass the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2018 (RPWDA) as per the guidelines of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The governor administration finally gave the nod to RPWDA, which other states of India have passed and implemented in December 2016.
The rules of the Act, however, are yet to be notified and will be in a month’s time, State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, Iqbal Lone, said.
The new Act, on the paper, seems completely rights-based. It increases the types of disabilities from existing seven to 21 categories, enhances the reservation in Jobs for the Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) from 3 percent to 4 percent on the horizontal basis and provides for constitution of State Advisory Board on Disability and District Level Committees on Disabilities with benchmark disabilities as its members.
It also provides extended reservation of 5 percent in the admission of PwDs in educational institutions without discrimination, their vocational training and self-employment and non-discrimination in employment, besides promising other benefits.
Government's plan and its loopholes
Since it has more than eight-year-old data on PwDs, the Jammu and Kashmir government, at present, is in the process of conducting a baseline survey to know the exact number and types of disabled people in the state.
The survey, as per Commissioner Iqbal Lone, is being carried for the last month-and-a-half through Anganwadi Centres under Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).
“This is for the first time in India that a commissionerate has ordered a baseline survey. So far we have registered over 1.5 lakh people in the survey, which we hope to complete by June,” Lone said.
Once the survey is completed, the Jammu and Kashmir government, he added, as per a cabinet decision in 2017, will come up with a comprehensive plan for a flagship scheme for PwDs, which the state does not have at present.
Lone denied the 45,000 figure of the pension cases pending with social welfare department.
“The pension scheme has new registration every now and then, so it is an ongoing process. There would always be pendency. The pendency in the entire state is not more than 18,000 or 19,000 cases,” he said.
He also claimed that the department had “already covered at least 50 percent or 1.5 lakh disabled” in the pension scheme.
Javed Ahmad Tak, founder chairman of Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline, an NGO that stands for the protection of the rights of disabled, said that the way the survey was conducted would make it a “flawed exercise”.
Javed, who is paraplegic since 1999 when he was shot in his spine by unidentified gunmen, said the Anganwadi workers employed to conduct the survey were neither qualified enough nor trained to properly identify disabilities.
“They have been in service for decades and many of them have not even qualified Class 12. How can they determine the percentage of disability in a person?” he asked.
Javed said that if a child suffered from cerebral palsy, his parents try not to share the information, and an Anganwadi worker doing a survey misses on it.
The lesser reach of the Anganwadi centres too was an issue in conducting the survey, Javed said.
“The survey would not be accurate. I think it won’t be able to even cover the actual 70 percent of the number of the disabled in state at present,” he said.
Many blind people, as per Javed, don’t even know that there is a survey going on.
“Visually impaired people are the most unaware of the avenues that can help them since they are hardly able to move out and seek these benefits. Besides, no government organisation attempts to reach out to them,” said Javed.
He said that the survey was ordered in 2016 when governor NN Vohra had met Javed and many like him who represented the disabled.
“Sajad Lone (then Minister of Social Welfare) too agreed to conduct the survey but failed to do it in the next two years,” Javed said.
It was only after the government passed the Jammu and Kashmir Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act in 2018 that the need for a survey was again felt.
The Act called for constituting a State Advisory Board on disability, which — apart from the top government officials, ministers, and members of the State Legislature — should also consist of 10 persons with disabilities and five other experts in the field of disability and rehabilitation.
However, Javed said the board constituted did not have proper representation of the blind.
He said he had sent to the Commissioner Secretary Social Welfare a list of the 10 persons with disabilities who would have properly represented all the PwDs in the board.
“But unfortunately, the secretary was transferred to the General Administration Department and now we have a new officer in his place. We have to explain to him the issue from the beginning and don’t know how much time that would take,” Javed said.
When at least a dozen blind people from Srinagar and Baramulla were contacted to find out if they knew that a survey was being conducted, 10 of them said they had no information of it and no government worker had approached them.
Clearly, there is a lot more that needs to be done.
The author is a freelance journalist in Jammu and Kashmir.
Updated Date: May 02, 2019 10:53:24 IST