Ajitha G.S. tries to uncover what India means to different generations of visually impaired citizens
It's my country. It's where I belong. It is home. It's where I was born and it's where I want to die. It's where I feel safe. It's where everyone's like me. It's where I can get through life without worrying about being a 'second-class citizen'.
Ask an Indian what 'being an Indian' means to her/him, and most answers will revolve around these sentiments.
But we'll wager that there is more than one India . That an upper middleclass, upper caste Hindu Indian male does not live in the same India as a below the poverty line Dalit or Muslim woman. Or any marginalised class - the visually impaired included. Wonderfully, in spite of these diverse experiences, there is a common thread of experience, there are common grouses, common concerns that all of us share. Probe a little more though, and the colour of the conversation changes subtly, whether the respondent is a senior citizen or someone in the prime of their lives, figuring out the ropes.
After all, we do live in one of the least disabled friendly nations of the civilised world. (Again, some of our respondents don't agree!)
Let's start with an experience A.K. Mittal of Chennai shares with us. Mittal - currently Regional Director, National Institute for the Visually Handicapped - was out looking for a house that he wanted on rent. "When I was looking for this house, I decided on a particular house, but the landlord was most uncomfortable with renting out his house to me. He felt that I might not be able to take care of his property or pay the rent on time. I was asked, therefore, to provide him with an undertaking from my employer," Mr. Mittal says.
This is the same person who began the conversation with, " India means to me exactly what it would to any non-disabled Indian citizen in my position. When I go abroad, I say with pride that I am an Indian. I feel a strong sense of belonging with my homeland."
Ask anyone else, and the response won't surprise you. Forty-five-year-old Special Rapporteur with the National Human Rights Commission Anuradha Mohit says, for example: "I feel a strong sense of belonging here, which I have never felt elsewhere in the world. I am concerned about the problems that India faces. I am sensitive to the external and internal threats that India faces. I am very concerned when natural disasters hit the country. I am joyous when India progresses - when it contributes to science and technology, trade or literature."
Or 24-year-old musician Srinkala Srivastava from Jabalpur : "This is where I was born and this is where my family and friends are. This is also where I learnt music, which is the most important facet of my life. I am immensely proud of the culture and heritage of our country. Our classical music is so beautiful that no matter where you are from, you cannot help but recognise the greatness of it."
A generation which has lived through British rule and Partition, however, has seen a much wider canvas of history. It has seen many shifting images of the idea that is ' India '. As 70-year-old Professor Vinod Sena, who has lived through the last 12 years of the Raj, the trauma of Partition and the rapid changes that have characterised the last 50 years of history, India means a lot of things, "things of which one is proud as also things which make one embarrassed". (Prof. Sena was a member of the English Department of the Delhi University from 1970 to 2005.)
He says: "On the debit side, we have failed to secure universal education for our children; we continue to have a large number of people living below the poverty line; and we seem to flourish on corruption, the criminalisation of politics and a parallel economy. On the positive side, we demonstrated to the world a bold new way to the peaceful dismemberment of a colonial empire; we have made the democratic process work and have resisted dictatorships. We have also made the world see that small things may be beautiful and that happiness is to be found within and not by courting large scale industrialisation and wealth. We can also be proud of the Green Revolution, our progress in the White Revolution, and our advancements in space technology. From a foreign-exchange-starved country, we have become a forex-rich one in recent years.
"For all our progress in industry, agriculture and science, we seem to have done precious little for citizens with special needs. Thus, we have created reservations for educational seats and jobs at institutions with government funding. Such reservations involve little additional expense. But we have failed to create the kind of support services without which a visually challenged person cannot function effectively as a student or as a professional. Fifty-eight years after independence we have still to provide for Braille books even at the primary school level. Nor do we have a national library service for our print-handicapped intelligentsia. It is high time that the focus shifted from reservations to providing suitable technical and human support to those with special needs."
These sentiments help us in establishing one basic fact: visually impaired and non-impaired persons understand India - or the concept of India - in the same way. But let's look at the story from the other point of view: What do visually impaired citizens mean to India ?
What bothers some the most is the fact that there are so many brilliant and highly qualified blind people in the country who are working far below their capacity. All it takes is a little accommodation to provide comfortable work environments for them. Of course, this isn't endemic to India , but we may have a somewhat larger problem than the developed countries.
Or, as Ms. Mohit elaborates, "As a visually impaired citizen, I face marginalisation as do many others on the basis of gender, caste, religion or other such facets. I am, therefore, particularly hopeful when we address equity as a country, because that gives me hope. The results? Well, we will have to wait."
And then there is 25-year-old Roshan Rajan, a reasonably well-known name in musical circles in Bangalore : "What I want most in India is that all disabled people are empowered by society and the government through knowledge, skills and equality of opportunity. When the opportunity to prove what we can do is denied to us by judging us on what we are and not what we have in us, I think citizenship loses its meaning for me."
What Mr. Rajan says, in a sense, sums up the situation. The support -- more often than not - is from fellow Indians, and not India itself. It is easier to receive assistance here. There are enough people on the road in India , and they willingly lend a hand if you have lost your way.
As a result, the only option blind citizens is to go it alone. Sidhharth Sharma, 39-year-old CEO of Foundation PR, suggests, "It is a pity the government doesn't do very much towards disability rights, because there is a lot it could do. At the end of the day, though, it's up to each of us. You have to make it on your own. Only when the country develops economically will the benefits of citizenship truly trickle down to the marginalised persons, like the visually disabled or the poorer sections of society."
Is that a fair idea? Well, maybe to the financially secure classes of people. But probably not to the blind person on the streets who has to wait for an 'able' person to come by and help her/him cross the street. And as always in success stories, luck and good fortune makes its presence felt: "I guess I am lucky that almost everyone I have had to interact with has been very good to me. Currently, I am both learning and teaching music. Even in these arenas, I have had no problems of access or of discrimination. My teachers are supportive and my students attentive," Ms. Srivastava says.
What do we have then? Indians who feel no differently about India because of their visual impairment. But that's a sentiment always tinged with disillusionment. The sense of belonging is ingrained in the self. But when life, or existence on a day-to-day basis, throws up additional challenges to go with the existing physical challenge, the colours of the tricolour tend to fade somewhat.