The 2011 census tells us that 6 to 7% of the population or 70 to 90 million people in India are disabled. The actual numbers are alarmingly larger. According to WHO estimate, there are 1 billion Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) globally – which means 15% of the population, on average, is disabled. Logically, India too will have 15% or more PwDs. But that figure doesn’t show up in surveys and studies thanks to the fact that disability is a social taboo and largely goes unreported. This is in addition to the fact that the definition of disability adopted by India fails to effectively identify all PwDs. The Persons with Disability Act, 1995, adopts a medical definition. In reality, society tends to view impairment beyond the medical definition. Ergo: India could have upwards of 250 million disabled.
But there is hope. Even considering the conservative 6% figure for PwDs, somewhere between 3 million to 5 million are educated (in reality that number will be 2X or ~10 million). In 1999 the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) observed in a study that only a meagre 100,000 were employed in corporate India. Although this figure is more than 15 years old, not much has changed. The average employment rate of disabled people in the private sector was only 0.28%. The public sector showed an employment rate of 0.54%. A 2008 study commissioned by the Planning Commission showed why the figures were so abysmal: PwDs are unaware of their employment rights, the source of information about employment for PwDs was employment exchanges and television with both proving to be ineffective and, by and large, states themselves were not observing the guidelines set for employing PwDs. In other words, there is lack of social, administrative and political will.
But the good news is that labour markets are improving. The IMF forecasts that India’s growth rate will stay at 7.5% for 2016-17. If the trend continues, it will spell an expansion in labour markets. For the next 3 or 4 years, India will look for inexpensive –but reliable—labour. And where will this labour come from? We think the already-educated but invisible PwD segment can easily help fill this gap. This is talent which has, time and again, proven that it is dependable, focused, productive and loyal.
The question is: How do we skill them appropriately for the requirements that industry will throw up in the coming months? The first step is to focus on policies that protect the rights of PwDs, inform them of the available opportunities, ensure access to training and create methodologies to fund the training or make loans available to PwDs.
Some of this work has already been initiated. The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has begun to put such thinking in place. However, what can the government do to absorb PwDs? The Indian Railways is the largest employer in the country. Can the railway ministry be mandated to show the way for other government organizations in a time-bound program?
Simultaneously, the idea to rope in not for profit organizations to assist PSUs (to meet their 3% commitment to hiring PwDs) and private organizations in identifying and training PwDs in emerging industry skills can provide a major boost. These public service organizations can focus on creating interactive e-content for training, find funding for development of new assistive devices and identify models for co-investment with corporate training institutes. These are not overly ambitious ideas. With a little will, they can become reality.