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Miracle in Marrakesh: India’s commitment to print disabled people

This blogpost is written by Avinash Shahi, Advocacy Officer, Score Foundation. Please note that Eyeway's Blog entries reflect the opinions of the author and contributors, meant to encourage debate and discussion, and not necessarily Score Foundation's official policy position. 
When late French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote “knowledge is power”, He became one of the most discussedpersonalities among educated ruling elites of his time. Things have not changed much in 21st century.  Knowledge is still the exclusive privilege of a hand full of elites. They in the garb of protecting intellectual property rights and copyright owners, exercise monopoly on published books. Thus the privileged few deny reading rights to millions of print disabled people who can’t afford such costly books.The gravity of the issue can be captured from the shocking figure shared by the World Blind Union, which states, “95% of books published in rich countries and 99% in poorer countries are never converted into accessible formats.”
According to the World Health Organization’s latest release in October 2013, out of World's 285 million visually impaired people,47 million live in India where books in friendly formats (Audio, braille and large print) are scarce. Only 1 per cent of all published books are available in accessible formats. Blind people who require books in Hindi and in regional languages other than in English do not find competent translators/translation centres to meet their needs. Thus their hunger for knowledge remains unmet. Such a serious situation on ground can sadly be described as reeling under “book famine”.
When disability activists representing different disability organizations apprised the Indian government about the scarcity of published books for blind people, it realized an urgent necessity and amended India’s existing 1957copyright act in May 2012 to facilitate conversion of books in accessible formats for print disabled people in the country. Section52(1) of Indian Copyright Act categorically states, The following act shall not be an infringement of copyright, namely:
"the adaptation, reproduction, issue of copies or communication to the public of any work in any accessible format, by (i) any person to facilitate persons with disability to access to works including sharing with any person with disability of such accessible format for private or personal use educational purpose or research"
Undoubtedly, India’s amended Copyright Act has been hailed by disability activists’ the world over as a landmark development towards facilitating availability of books to print disabled people. But given the lack of interest for translation business in regional languages, Central government in collaboration with state governments’ will have to own the responsibility to publish and convert books in regional languages for print disabled citizens.
On 30 April 2014, India, along with 63 other countries including European Union, became a signatory to the UN affiliated World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) June 2013 international treaty on copyright exception for print disabled. This treaty which, came into being in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, commits to facilitating cross-border exchange of books in accessible formats. As The Economist reported: “A Braille book made in America, for example, cannot legally be sold in Britain. Argentina has over 50,000 works available for visually impaired readers, but they cannot be distributed in neighboring Uruguay, which has a paltry 4,000.” It is widely known that the western countries such as United States of America and its close allies are skeptical of WIPO Copyright treaty and they fear that in the advanced age of technology such exception in copyright law will be misused in ordinary situation by others who are not print disabled.
The WIPO treaty on Copyright exception for print disabled has not yet been ratified by 20 member states, which is the minimum numbers to bring this treaty in to reality. One can hope developing countries, where a majority of persons with disabilities reside, will take an urgent call to ratify this historic treaty which aims to minimize the gap between haves or have not’s.
India has shown its commitment to remove the barriers which restrict conversion of books in friendly formats. India has not only amended its copyright act with major exceptions for print disabled people, but it also strongly advocates at international fora to make cross-border export/import of books in accessible formats possible. India has a huge population who are unable to read and write only due to the lack of accessible reading materials. Therefore, government is duty bound to either incentivize NGOs working in the field to take up the translation/conversion of books in accessibility formats, or the Centre can establish publishing centers to convert books in digital/braille/audio formats.
Reading is a fundamental right of all citizens in the country. The Government needs to think hard about how to address this existing “book famine” in the country.

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