The concept of “poverty” as a major obstacle for disabled people isn’t a new notion, according to the 2011 World Report on Disability, 15% of the world’s population has some sort of disability, with 80% of the projected 1 billion people living in Middle and Low-Income Countries (MLIC) having at least 20% of their families living in poverty. People with disabilities make up a large share of those who are adversely affected by the pandemic. Although, the global discourse on disability failed to recognise poverty and hunger as major hurdles for persons with disabilities. To deal with this grave issue, the Disability and Development Consortium India (DDC) organised a Webinar on 9th Feb’22 on “Poverty, Hunger and Disability: The Missing Link”.
For this webinar, 6 prominent people panelists were invited to discuss this issue and in the process, arrive at a possible solution. Among the panelists were, Aruna Roy (Political Activist, School for Democracy, MKSS), Jean Dreze (Development Economist), Amitabh Beher (CEO, Oxfam India), Franizska Mager (Sr. Research Manager, Oxfam-GB), Praveen Kumar G (Lead Adviser Social Inclusion- VSO International) and Ketan Kothari (Manager Advocacy- Sightsavers).
The webinar was moderated by Akhil Paul from Sense International India who started off the event by putting out important questions on the current status of the two Sustainable Development Goals that aimed to combat poverty and hunger all over the world, since the time it was first set up by the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2015. Along with him, Ms. Kiran Patidar delivered the Welcome Speech on behalf of the Disability and Development Consortium India. The first keynote speech was delivered by B.Venkatesh, the founder of Action on Disability and Development (ADD) and Convernor of Indian Forum for Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology (IFRA) who stated the importance of this webinar in ensuring that poverty and hunger are considered crucial factors in the global disability discourse. Another opening remarks on the webinar was given by Arman Ali who’s the executive director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.
The first speaker of the event was Aruna Roy, a socio-political activist and teh founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), National Campaign to People’s Right to Information (NCPR), and the School For Democracy (SFD). Roy talked about the prolonged issue of poverty in India, even as growth rates have recorded a sharp increase. At the margins of social exclusion, the unequal distribution of new resources has been developing at a rapid rate. As a result of the lack of special efforts to integrate the rights of the disabled within the rights-based framework, the separation of the two parallel frameworks of poor and disabled rights leaves people with disabilities suffering from the disadvantages of poverty and often unable to take advantage of all of the poor’s rights. In order to show how important it is to recognise the special rights of the disabled within the general framework of rights that would help fight or overcome poverty, Roy emphasized on looking at it through an intersection of three rights for the poor – Rations (Food), MGNREGA (employment) and social security pensions. Amongst the right to employment, food, and social security pensions, two are covered by National Rights based legislations. She mentioned how the social security pensions are not legally protected, and there is a special category for disability pensions that is not justiciable. As a result, the numbers covered are extremely low, and the amount paid has been nominally the same for 15 years, and thus has diminishing value. Further, she suggested a campaign for the meaningful implementation of special rights for the disabled people such as automatic inclusion in welfare schemes needs to be taken up as well. The only solution to secure the equal well being of each individual is equal access.
The second presentation was by prominent Development Economist Jean Dreze on Disability Matters in Poor Economics. Jean is known for his commitment to social justice not just in India but internationally as well. He talked about the failure of mainstream economics in paying adequate attention to disability as a form and a source of poverty. What mainstream economics lacks is the proper definition of poverty and the standard definition of poverty remains unsuccessful in considering the fact that different people have different needs. Jean mentioned that with the standard approach of looking at poverty as a lack of purchasing power, fails to recognise the variations of people’s needs and in the process neglect the power of persons with disabilities (PWDs). He further went on to explain the unfair approach of India’s “BPL Census” as it does not consider the various struggles of PWDs in terms of their limited ability to convert their assets into streams of income or earnings, their households earning power getting further restricted because of their need of a caregiver, their special needs such as healthcare or equipment and that their disability has the power to diminish the wellbeing of PWDs and in the process restrict their freedoms. Thus, the BPL census lists which are still being used used in various welfare schemes including social security pensions are highly biased towards only a certain kind of section while completely ignoring the special needs of PWDs. Jean also points out how the various government schemes that are technically planned to cover the pensions for disabled people are actually defective. In reality, if one goes with the statistical datas, the number of disabled people who actually benefit from these pension schemes are much lower in comparison to the whole population of disabled people living in the country. The poorest people, who have little power to save and no incentive to trust the government with their resources, are uninterested in these contributory schemes. Therefore, it becomes very important to be aware about these failures of the Central Government in recognising the needs of the people living with disabilities in the country.
The next panelist was Mr. Amitabh Behar who’s the CEO of Oxfam India and is the driving force behind the organization’s vision to combat inequality, poverty, and injustice in the country, as well as its humanitarian operations. He is one of the leading experts of people-centric advocacy and also chairs the board of Navsarjan. Behar focussed on the significance of looking at the larger economic systems in order to comprehend what’s happening with goal number 1 and 2 of the SDGs which is the central part of this discussion and in the process, deal with the questions of disability rights that the webinar is lookin at. The current economic system that we have created with the growth of capitalism, which favours the rich and harms the ones who are poor and vulnerable, has given rise to an explosion of inequality in the country and also globally. This inequality index has been very evident when the COVID 19 pandemic hit off all over the world. Behar presented several datas all over the world to show the multiple dimensions of inequality and how it only results in the destruction and suffering of the vulnerable populations all over the world. He further talked about the issue of health, which is one of the primary causes of people sliding into poverty and inequality in healthcare systems have also been particularly proven during the waves of pandemic. At times, when the pharmaceutical business was booming in the country, the public health system was crumbling and many were dying especially during the second wave of pandemic in India. He points out that the decline in the health budget of the country just last year, even in the times of pandemic, depicts the failure of the government in ensuring better healthcare facilities for its citizens despite the introduction of schemes like Ayushman Bharat which reaches only few percent of the total population of India. In the end, as a part of the solutions to these issues, he mentioned that it is important to look into hunger and poverty through the lens of intersectionality, for instance these two factors cannot be dealt without looking into the intersection of access to education, health and disability.
Franziska Mager, who is a senior Research Manager at Oxfam, GB and also has been part of the study on the size of the gap between the rich and the poor, was the next speaker of the webinar. Her presentation was on the Interconnected Struggles of Poverty in times of COVID19. She discussed how the global poverty measurement graph or index lacks authenticity, in regards to the actual experiences of people. Mager displayed different statistical graphs and datas to provide information on the global inequality index and it’s interconnection with poverty. She explained that poverty reduction is very closely linked to how inequality plays out in a certain place and also inequality reduction that has happened in quite a few countries across the globe is very vulnerable to shocks, like a pandemic since it is sensitive to developments that happened across the entire distribution. She pointed out the lack of data on the interconnection of disability and poverty, signifying the exclusion of disability from the standard definition of poverty in economics.
The next speaker of the event was Praveen Kumar who currently leads VSO’s work on social inclusion as an advisor across the Africa and Asia Pacific region. He has 2 decades of experience working on inclusion in development. He has been part of various advocacy initiatives and has contributed to strengthening the disability networks in India, Kenya, Rwanda and Zambia. He majorly discussed poverty from a global perspective touching upon the aspects related to education, health and livelihoods, COVID 19 with the help of facts and datas in order to highlight the extent of exclusion of PWDs. While talking about the inequality in the context of access to education during the times of COVID 19, on a global level, the datas that he displayed indicated a significant increase in the percentage of children with disabilities struggling with their studies in comparison to children without disabilities. Kumar also spoke`about the impact of COVID 19 on people with disabilities which included increased risk of contracting the virus due to lack of information in accessible formats; inability to access health care and vaccination due to inaccessible physical environments; gaps in service delivery; and discriminatory prejudice and stigma in society. Apart from the notable increase in the percentage of global employment index post-Covid, 80-90 percent of persons with disabilities under the working age are unemployed in developing countries according to the data he displayed in his presentation. As mentioned in the information provided by the International Labour Organization (ILO), countries lose 3-7% of their annual GDP because of their failure to include PWDs in the workforce. Moreover, he also spoke on the interconnections of Gender based violence and Mental Health with COVID 19 pandemic and disability, globally. Kumar concluded on the note that datas or information on disability is very skewed and limited. He suggests that there should be an equal effort to gather data on disability issues and further look at it with an intersectional approach.
The last speaker for the event was Ketan Kothari who has been involved in the disability sector for the last 30 years and shouldered various responsibilities in mainly two leading organisations – National Association for the Blind and SightSavers India. For the event, he shared the findings of a study jointly conducted by Rising Flames and Sightsavers on the situation of women with disabilities during COVID 19. Through the study, he experienced the same absence of data on disabled people, in the government sites or otherwise to validate the findings of the study. Kothari narrated the problems that women with disability faced, especially during the first wave of COVID when the anxiety around the new found virus was all around the world. Accessibility became a major concern during that time so much so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing weren’t aware about the virus and the lockdown for a substantially long period. Access to food became a grave issue for women with disabilities who lived alone or with elderly people and picking up ration during the lockdown got difficult. Online education was unapproachable for the disabled students and the education gap between able bodied and disabled people only widened in the pandemic. He also mentioned that government schemes like Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY) failed to help those women with disabilities who qualified for the scheme. Kothari pointed out the unequal distribution of government pensions and suggested that the legalization of these insurance is extremely crucial during this time of pandemic.
After the lectures given by all the six panelists, the next part of the event was the question answer section, where the attendees of the event asked some valuable questions to the panelists present followed by a brief discussion around it. The summing up of the event was concluded by Kuhu Das who is the founder of Association for Women with Disabilities. Finally, Vote of Thanks was given by AS Narayan, president of National Association of the Deaf.
Author’s bio – Europa is an art enthusiast, an occasional reader and a musicophile. She’s doing her Master’s in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi and her interest revolves around the issues faced by marginalised communities. Currently, she is interning at kractivist.org