The government’s decision to clear the Rs 1,800 crore scheme — an incentive for the cash-rich private sector to provide employment to 100,000 differently abled people a year — is creditable. According to the proposal, the government will pick up the tab for the employers’ contribution towards the Employees’ Provident Fund and the Employees’ State Insurance of the special workforce a private sector company employs. However, the landmark decision will lose sheen if we consider the time that has been taken by the government to come to this decision. The first indication of providing an incentive to ensure employment came up in 1995-96. This means that it took the government 12 long years to come up with a concrete plan. And, considering that only one per cent of the total number of differently abled people, who comprise 5-6 per cent of the total population, are employed, this delay is not only unfortunate, it’s almost criminal.
The employment scenario for the differently abled has been dismal for years, to say the least. In 1999, the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People did a survey of the top 100 Indian companies and the percentage of differently abled people they had on their payroll. The results were shocking: the total percentage of differently abled people employed in the public sector was 0.5 per cent, 0.2 per cent in the private sector and for multinationals it was 0.05 per cent. The study also proved that in two decades nothing much had moved even in the government sector, considering that the government had made it mandatory to have 3 per cent reservation in jobs for the differently abled in 1977. If a similar study is done today, the numbers would not be much better even though economic opportunities have vastly increased and diversified.
If the government is serious about levelling the playing field, much more needs to be done. For starters, these incentives must have legal backing. Just a ‘directive principle’ to companies will not take us anywhere. A differently abled employee can take a government company to court because a law binds the company. But this is not likely to cut much ice with private employers. More often than not, there is discrimination among differently abled employees: a job would go to a person with a lower degree of disability to avoid overhauling the access infrastructure of the company. By providing employment to people with a lower degree of disability, firms sometimes manage to fulfil their corporate social responsibility without spending a lot on overhauling their infrastructure. Of course, government offices are no better.
Since access is the first step towards integrating the differently abled with the ‘mainstream’, instead of piecemeal action, the government must ask companies to upgrade their infrastructure and this should be backed up by tax-breaks. Or possibly, preferred employers of the new economy — the BPO industry — could be asked to provide low-floor cars for ferrying wheelchair-bound employees, instead of the high-floor SUVs. It would cost the company a little more, but would mean a world of opportunity for a differently abled employee.