Reflections on What it Means to be Disabled in India
India and its people (or at least some of its people) have been close to my heart since I was very young. In my childhood my mother, who studied under the Indian poet philosopher Rabindranath Tagore when he was a guest professor at Harvard, used to read me his Crescent Moon Poems. As a boy I began to form a dream of the Orient, and especially India, as a place where people were kind and lived in harmony with each other and with nature. In my 20s I traveled to India overland from Europe on a bicycle, in pursuit of that Eutopian dream.
The dream was of course a dream. India is a land of contradictions—of great humanity and inhumanity. But in India people’s dreams and nightmares seem more real, or at least they are driven by them. My youthful journey to the East had a deep impact on me and has determined the direction of my life ever since. By the time I first went to India the non-violent revolutionary, Mohandas Gandhi, had already been slain. But his spiritual successor and leader of the Bhudan land reform movement, Vinoba Bhave, was still walking the face of India recovering millions of acres of land from the rich, for the landless. The Nai Talim schools—which Gandhi and Vinoba set up to enable untouchable children to survive with dignity in a world that denigrated them—were still going strong. My exposure to Vinoba and Nai Talim opened the way to my later involvement in alternative education, and then to my lifelong struggle for the health and rights of marginalized people.
I have revisited India several times in the last few decades. Each time I return, some part of my soul reignites. There is much love, kindness and beauty in India. But the crushing poverty in the face of wealth remains overbearing.
In his recent book, The End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs celebrates India as a country whose recent immersion into the global economy has launched it on the long road to prosperity. Poverty, he asserts, will retreat as economics grows.
But economic growth in India has left hundreds of millions behind. Perhaps the claims are true that fewer people live on less than one dollar a day. Yet many I talked to in India say that the poverty and powerlessness of the poor is getting worse. As the water table drops with industrialization, and climate change causes increasing floods in some areas and droughts in others, more and more farmers are committing suicide. For the few improvements that peasant farmers have realized in terms of land use and fairer treatment, many people I talked with give more credit to the Naxalites (Maoist Guerrilla movement) than to the World Bank. Indeed, in Andhra Pradesh, where the Bank has its model program to benefit disabled people, the disabled persons I met had fewer services and benefits than those in the other parts of India I visited.
In short, the basic needs of hundreds of millions of people in India remain unmet. Millions of children are under-nourished. Rich countries dump their surplus grain on India at subsidized prices, which forces Indian farmers off the land. Meanwhile, vast amounts of stored grain rot while multitudes go hungry.
No, India is not free from the increasingly globalized shackles of the Northern powers. Gandhi would turn in his grave.
The World Health Organization states that one of the biggest causes of disability is poverty. But in a rigidly stratified society, poverty itself is a disability.
This is why the Network of Persons with disAbilities Organizations (NPdO) in Andhra Pradesh takes a “rights based approach” to rehabilitation, and feels that they must struggle for equal rights and equal oppor- tunities of all peoples, including those of the women, tribals, the underclass, the scheduled castes (untouchables) and others who are left out of what is mistakenly called development. More power to them!