The missing issue of Nagaland Election 2018

A young boy taking part in a rally calling for inclusive education on Nov 4, 2017. Hundreds of children with disability came out and pleaded with their government and fellow citizens to hear their voice. Sadly, it appears that the politicians have not heard them

The election campaign circus has been painting the town red with all the usual political dramas, bombastic rhetoric, tired promises we hear every election but which hardly ever see light of day and, of course, the mindless parroting of ‘solution’ ad infinitum by various candidates and leaders of political parties. In fact, one would be forgiven for thinking that general elections in Nagaland have now become about nothing but the Naga issue.

As ‘interesting’ as all that has been, there are other very important issues that some people have been waiting to hear about; issues that literally impact their day-to-day living. And so, with voting day just a couple of days away (Feb 27), let’s take a look at what the politicians and political parties have been saying on disability issues and what their positions and policies are on Disability.

 What are they saying? Well, nothing is the short answer.

The grim reality is that People with Disabilities represent the most excluded of all groups in Naga society. They are yet to become visible as equal citizens in our society and, as it stands, they are still completely invisible in politics and to politicians who aspire to be representatives of ‘all the Naga people’. Even as voter demographics of all hues – women, youth, senior citizens, et al – are being thrown into the mix of campaign promises, people with disabilities and disability issues are nowhere to be seen. No big surprise there! Nagas with disabilities are only too used to being ignored and not counted as citizens that matter.

Nagas with Disabilities have heard only deafening silence in the campaign when it comes to their issues and concerns. But have the political parties at least made some policy commitments in their manifestos?

Not to speak of a specific Disability Policy, most parties have barely mentioned People with Disabilities. Apparently, they’re all very concerned about empowering women and youth and making sure that senior citizens and widows and even religious groups get all the support they need, but People with Disabilities who are the most marginalised are not significant enough to get on their radar.

To their credit, NDPP and BJP have included a separate Disability Policy in their manifestos. The ‘Disability Policy of NDPP’ says ‘The Party recognises that differently-abled/specially abled people face discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion’. NDPP states that it is, therefore, ‘committed to realising the full promise of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2016’. It says it will work for equal opportunities at Work, access to Education and to Health Services, develop accessible environments and reform disability benefits.

One key aspect for the disability community is The Disability Act 2016. Even as People with Disabilities continue to be ignored and their rights as equal citizens grossly violated in the state, Nagaland is yet to make a move towards implementation of the new Disability Act which it was required to do within six months of the Act becoming law in April 2017. The pleas of the disability community have gone unheard so far.

There was no response from NDPP to repeated messages asking whether the party was truly committed to the full implementation of the Disability Act if it comes to power.

The BJP, in a section termed ‘Differently-Abled Citizens’, says it ‘follows an all-inclusive policy to take the society and country forward’. Mentioning some provisions of the Disability Act 2016 and various schemes and programmes of the central govt, it has stated that all ‘benefits’ will be implemented ‘for the differently-abled sections of the state to ensure their security for a complete life’

BJP president Visasolie Lhoungu said his party and the NDPP-BJP alliance is fully committed to the implementation of the Disability Act 2016.

The other major party, NPF, has no specific disability policy. A vague mention comes in the Social Security Concerns: “Poverty alleviation and improving the quality of life for poor and differently abled people is an important aspect of socio-economic development in the State”. Under Education, it says it will set up an ‘Institution for Training of differently abled in Music, Sports and Business Sector’.

It’s great that they are promising a training centre, but since they are the party that had been in power, it has to be reminded that two disability projects – Blind School & Vocational Training Centre for the Disabled and the Composite Regional Centre (CRC) at Dimapur – remain unfinished and, in fact, were removed from the NEC priority list last year despite the urging of the disability community.

When contacted on its position on disability and whether it is ready to commit to full implementation of the Disability Act 2016 should the party come to power again, NPF said its president Shürhozelie and chief ministerial candidate TR Zeliang were ‘terribly engaged’ and will be able to respond only after the elections.

NPP, INC and JD (U) have also not mentioned People with Disabilities at all in their commitments. NPP did not respond back to the queries while JD (U) could not be contacted for comment.

INC said it is a regrettable oversight on their part that they have not included a Disability Policy. Its spokesperson Capt GK Zhimomi said the party is definitely aware of the issue and will uphold and support full implementation of the Disability Act in letter and spirit.

All the parties had plenty to say on Education in their manifestos – revamping the department, upgrading infrastructure, smart classrooms, transparent teacher recruitment, provision of quality facilities and amenities, etc. They have made lofty promises to set up medical schools, engineering colleges, law colleges and other technical institutes. But not one has made any mention of accessible schools and classrooms or education that includes children with disabilities.

Majority of children with disabilities in Nagaland cannot attend school or get a full and proper education. Many of them will probably never enter a classroom. And it's not because they can't learn or don't want to be at school. They are kept out because of the numerous barriers they face - inaccessible environments and learning materials, lack of facilities, lack of trained teachers, and so on and so forth.

On November 4 last year, hundreds of children with disabilities and their well wishers took out a rally calling for inclusive education. We’re not asking for special privileges, we just want to get an education like everybody else, they said, and begged their government and the people to hear their voice. Sadly, it appears the politicians have not heard them

NB: A version of this piece was published in the local papers on Feb 25 – Morung Express and Nagaland Post