15 December 2017 was the most unusual day for the visually impaired persons in the recent times. This day, at around 11 a.m., the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) demolished a hostel, Louis Welfare Progressive Association of the Blind in Janakpuri’s Virender Nagar, which had been home to many visually impaired students for the last seven years. Uninformed of this development, around the same time, the Supreme Court delivered a very progressive judgment in ‘Rajive Raturi vs Union of India’ benefitting millions of persons with disability (PWD). Lets us examine the dichotomy of circumstances visited upon the visually impaired persons on the same day within a matter of a few hours and the emerging legal discourse.
Leaving Visually Impaired Homeless
The demolition of the hostel for the blind by DDA has left 20 visually impaired students in the cold and open. As an academic person involved in disability rights studies and movement, I am aggrieved by this inhumane act of DDA. It is not denied by DDA that the hostel which housed the visually disabled students, mainly of Delhi University and adjoining Sarvodaya School, had been operational for the last seven years. This hostel building was given to visually impaired students for use in 2010 by the then area Councillor. Earlier an anganwadi centre for slum children used to operate from these premises, but it was relocated.
To justify the demolition and compelling visually handicapped students to be homeless in severe winter conditions, the DDA official said, “We have been making correspondence with the hostel management since April this year. They have been informed four times since then. A day before the demolition, they were informed verbally. We did not inform them in writing as they could procure stay order from the court and it becomes very difficult for the DDA to clear encroachments then”. There is no denying that demolition of unauthorised structures is well within the jurisdiction of DDA. However, such an official stand in this case does not seem tenable at all. Firstly, nothing was done to rehabilitate the visually impaired students and secondly, they did not have an opportunity to challenge this objectionable demolition.
In fact, it raises questions about the procedure followed and the insensitive approach of DDA. Why was a written notice not served on the hostel inmates about the demolition? Why was no effort made by DDA to consult the Delhi Government for rehabilitating these differently abled students prior to the demolition drive? At the same time, we must not forget that these visually impaired students were not homeless but have been rendered so by State action. Not leaving it at that, DDA has suggested these students seek refuge in the Night Shelters run by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. Is that actually the most reasonable and suitable solution? Will it absolve DDA of its brutal action? Compelling these visually impaired students to find a temporary stay at such ‘Night Shelters’ is nothing but a poor remedy being thrust upon them. This reflects callousness of DDA in dealing with cases involving persons with disability.
Notwithstanding the fact that the case is still open for investigation concerning the overall process of demolition adopted and followed in this case, it cannot be denied that a fool-proof plan of rehabilitation should have been worked out in advance. It would have prevented the visually impaired students from being thrown out in the open. Nature has already visited hardship on them and such State action has only compounded their woes. It was not a case of a regular land encroachment where an enterprise was being run for profit. This hostel was run by the visually impaired students themselves and for the well being of similarly disabled brothers and friends. Instead, DDA chose to deal with them in an extreme manner, citing compliance of procedures, which itself is doubtful. DDA has done nothing less than subject visually impaired students to mental agony, humiliation and emotional trauma which amounts to doing violence to their human dignity. It can be read to be an infringement of their fundamental rights enshrined under Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. Perhaps, a strong case against the State is on the way.
Visually Impaired Persons Right to Accessibility
In stark contrast to this story runs a historic judgment pronounced by the Supreme Court on the same day in ‘Rajive Raturi vs Union of India’. The Supreme Court recognised the fundamental concern of visually handicapped persons in respect of safe access to roads and transport facilities. The court extended the benefit of this judgment to all persons with any form of disability. This is because accessibility is the primary and non-negotiable concern of every PWD. The Supreme Court issued 10 directions prescribing time frame for both the Central Government and the State Governments to identify government buildings for making them accessible by visually impaired persons and also directed governments to complete the retrofitting in a stipulated time period. The Court also clarified that no further time shall be granted in this regard. Directions have also been issued to make airports and railways accessible to the PWDs.
The Supreme Court said that “without these facilities, movement of such persons gets impaired and this can even be treated as infringement of their fundamental rights under Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution, which is guaranteed to each and every citizen of this country.” The right of accessibility is well subsumed within the overarching right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. This judgment has a discreet undertone that non-compliance with such directions would not only invite judicial consequences but would also amount to discrimination against PWDs. This could perhaps lead to a second case against the State for infringement of the fundamental right of PWDs.
Judiciary Steps in
In the first case made out above, the Delhi High Court has already taken suo moto cognizance of DDA’s action. The High Court has issued notice to DDA and has sought a status report with regard to rehabilitation of the visually impaired students who have been displaced. Indian judiciary’s disabled-friendly activism is well known in our country. The Delhi High Court’s intervention is a welcome and exemplary step.
his shall ring a warning bell for other State Governments as the second case made out may soon see judicial actions across the country. This would only reinforce faith of millions of PWDs in the Indian judiciary. May this unusual story of the visually impaired leave profound impact on State actions and we see timely implementation of the Supreme Court’s directions and the disability law of 2016.