On July 4 afternoon national media reverberated with Ira Singhal’s success stories -- the first physically challenged candidate to top Indian civil services examination.
Singhal, who suffers from Scoliosis, a spine-related disorder that disrupts her arm movement, was projected as an inspiration for the thousands of those specially-abled aspirants who dream to overcome hurdles and create a niche for themselves.
Her success story is doubly laudable because she was rejected after clearing the examination in 2010 on grounds of “disability”.
Around 28 years ago, another wheelchair-bound was barred from becoming an IAS officer. In the years to come, a ‘rejected’ Sruti Mohapatra went on to become a crusader for the differently-abled's rights.
It was due to relentless struggle of this Bhubaneswar-based activist that the Puri’s Jagannath Temple opened its gates for the people on wheelchair.
“I had qualified the Indian civil services and got into the Group A allied services. As every aspirant would do, I joined the service. But my aim was IAS, so I took the examination again. Few days to my interview…we were returning from a temple in Bhubaneswar when a speeding bus hit our car. The accident severely injured my spinal cord and the lower part of my body was paralysed,” Mohapatra said.
After several rounds of treatments, she returned home, but on a wheelchair. This was just the beginning of her struggles.
“My fate was not as good as Singhal’s. In 1987, there were no laws to protect the rights of the disabled. For the government and the society, we were issues of charity. My father wrote to the UPSC and all other relevant government bodies to delay my training or do some adjustments,” she recalls.
In a conciliatory gesture, the UPSC offered her a position with reduced rank and salary. When Mohapatra questioned the ‘offer’, the panel stopped replying and closed the job on her.
“I had never cried after my accident. But the government's apathy broke me,” Mohapatra told HT over phone from Bhubaneswar.
Her dream might have remained unfulfilled, but the 52-year-old social activist has high hopes from this year’s IAS topper.
“Ira has once again made us believe that nothing is impossible. I hope she sets an example for other districts in the country with her work. She is a role model for all differently-abled aspirants. Her prior focus should on the development of disabled people,” said Mohapatra, who is the founder and the chief executive of Swabhiman, a Bhubaneswar-based non-profit organisation, which has been working for the empowerment of people with disabilities in Odisha since 2001.
Beginning of a new life
Since 1987 till 1996, she trained civil service aspirants in programmes sponsored by the central as well as the Odisha (then Orissa) governments. She has successfully trained more than 300 students, who are now working in various positions in government, banks, research institutes, universities and other services.
And then came Swabhiman. “We started Swabhiman with a belief that people with disabilities are equal partners in all respects and all fields and that the thrust for empowering persons with disabilities is in accessing and utilising information,” she said.
Swabhiman, which started with a few members, now has over 1,000 volunteers, besides 162 active student members from in and around colleges in the state capital.
Today, Mohapatra, also known as the “crusader on wheelchair”, doesn’t need an introduction in her state. Anjali, her NGO’s annual festival, which was initially started for children with disabilities, has now expanded to include students from several schools and colleges.
From just 77 children in 2002, the festival has crossed 25,000 in attendance in 2014. Today, this is one of the biggest festivals for differently-able children in the country.
“Anjali emphasises on bag-less schooling, outdoor classes, interactive rather than blackboard teaching and new mediums of learning,” the proud founder said.
One of the finds of Anjali is Harihar Deo, who first participated in 2002. The organisers were impressed to find his arm stubs getting overshadowed by his thundering legs and lightning fast movements. He has won many prizes and awards, both as a dancer and a choreographer, notable ones being awarded by Salma Ansari at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, and former President Pratibha Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
But, she says, her endeavors have a long way to go.
“We have great laws, wonderful policies and fantastic schemes but unfortunately persons with disabilities continue to remain marginalised because we are very weak in implementation. The officers who chair senior level positions must have a thorough knowledge and good understanding of disability… Barely 40% students know about Banishree scholarship or scribe policy in college,” she said.
"Around 50% people are unaware of free distribution of assistive devices. Even now about 30% do not have disability certificate.”
Interested in politics
When the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) was formed in 1997, the party asked her to head its women’s wing, an offer she refused.
“But now after much disillusionment, I sometimes wonder if it would have been wise to join politics and bring in new changes. I am interested to be part of Indian politics now,” a determined Mohapatra said.