PM calls for greater security, dignity for vulnerable sections

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking at the inauguration of the Annual Conference of State Welfare/Social Justice Ministers. Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Mukul Wasnik is also seen.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking at the inauguration of the Annual Conference of State Welfare/Social Justice Ministers. Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Mukul Wasnik is also seen.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today said the Centre and the States must work out effective strategies to ensure greater security, dignity and equality as well as more non-discriminatory treatment to the vulnerable sections of the population.

"There can be no progress unless and until the pace of progress is also linked with the achievement of empowerment of the marginalized sections and our country moving towards a constitutional imperative of social justice," Dr Singh said while inaugurating the State Welfare Ministers' Conference here.

"It is our constitutional, social and moral duty to give high priority to the needs and concerns of the Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, Persons with Disabilities and our Senior Citizens," she said.

Dr Singh said that the nation had not shown adequate sensitivity and understanding that are required to deal with the special problems of these disadvantaged groups.

He said some progress had been made in this direction but it was far below expectations and far below the needs of the country.

"They are and should be considered as equal partners in our development processes. Development processes must lead to that imperative necessity. We should therefore reflect on how to harness the largely untapped potential of people of disadvantage to become equal productive citizens of our great Republic," he said.

The Prime Minister said the root of the problem of exclusion from the national mainstream lay in social prejudices and associated discrimination.

"What can we do to become a more humane and socially progressive society and thereby a more developed society? It appears to me we can begin by changing a mindset that sees people of disadvantage not as a productive national resource that they are but as a marginal section of society at the fringes of our policy establishment. I urge you to carry out a concerted awareness programme that makes creative use of media, educational institutions and civil societies and places the well being of these marginalized section at the centre of the development agenda for our nation," he said.

Dr Singh said the first task was to provide physical security. He noted that reports of atrocities against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and senior citizens unfortunately continued to appear all over the country with disturbing regularity.

He said he had, in fact, written to the Chief Ministers of all the States recently to enforce vigorously the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He said he had also had a separate meeting with Chief Ministers on the subject.

"It is shocking that the conviction rate for cases of atrocities against SC/STs is less than 30% against the average of 42% for all cognizable offences under the IPC. The State Governments therefore need to give more attention to this important issue. Meetings of State and district Vigilance and Monitoring Committees should be held more regularly. Court cases should be pursued diligently and on priority basis," he said.

Referring to the fact that many parts of the country had reported drought-like conditions, Dr Singh said that the experience so far had been that weaker sections tended to be the worst affected by such natural calamities.

He, therefore, stressed the need to step up monitoring and implementation of key welfare schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), "Annapurna" and Old Age Pension Scheme which target the weaker sections and said it was essential to ensure that these sections receive their proportionate share of these benefits.

The Prime Minister said that the Government proposed to take up, this year, on a pilot basis a new scheme called "Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana" (PMAGY) for integrated 1,000 villages having more than 50 per cent Scheduled Caste population.

The scheme is aimed at convergent implementation of various development schemes in these villages, with an additionality of Rs. 10 lakh per village to meet such of its basic requirements as cannot be met from the existing schemes. If the pilot scheme is successful, the government would expand it to more areas, he said.

Dr Singh said he had met groups representing persons with disabilities and had found in them a desire and a determination to live productive lives and make their own individual contributions to society.

"We should give them every possible opportunity to do so. They need equal opportunities as equal citizens with special needs. Our country has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) that came into force in May 2008. This Convention casts certain obligations on all the signatories towards enforcement of various rights of persons with disabilities. We propose therefore to comprehensively amend the Persons with Disabilities Act, in consultation with the State Governments and all stakeholders, so as to bring it in line with our obligations under the UN Convention," she said.

Pointing out that accessibility was a major issue for persons with disabilities, Dr Singh urged educational and healthcare institutions, government offices, banks and other places with public dealings to become more user friendly and accessible to the disadvantaged persons. Small steps like building ramps or designating officers to facilitate their work could go a long way in this direction, he said.

He said the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology needed to promote development of accessibility software in all Indian languages.

According to him, Government websites need to be more user-friendly for disabled persons. He said he was happy that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had made a beginning in this regard.

Similarly, he urged the National Institute of Design to encourage the design of everyday appliances and instruments that cater to the needs of people with various disabilities.

"These are the kinds of institutions that should, in my opinion, take the lead in building social consciousness in support of the legitimate aspirations of people with disabilities," he said.

Dr Singh said the Finance Minister, in the budget speech for 2007-08, had announced an incentive scheme to promote employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector.

He said that it was regrettable that, though this scheme had been in operation since April 1 last year, it had not made much headway in the last one and a half years.

"This may partly have been due to the economic slowdown of 2008-09. But as our economy is now emerging from its slowdown phase, I would urge the corporate sector to respond handsomely in the implementation of the Scheme. Central and State Governments and the corporate sector need to work hand in hand so that persons with disabilities get employment opportunities in the private sector through this scheme in large numbers. This is an important part of the social obligation of corporate enterprises," he said.

The Prime Minister said the estimated population of senior citizens in the country is projected to more than double by 2026 to 17.3 crore.

"India has a longstanding tradition of respect and service to elders. But with growing urbanization and nuclearisation of the family, we should reflect on the role of the community and the State in looking after the aged and the elderly persons. Our senior citizens must feel secure, valued and honoured," he remarked.

Dr Singh said Parliament had enacted the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act in December 2007. But individual State Governments have to bring the Act into force, notify rules under it, and establish and activate Maintenance Tribunals. Five States have yet to notify the Act, he pointed out. Even the States which have brought the Act into force have been slow in taking follow up action, which they need to do on high priority, he said.

The Prime Minister said a lot of good work had been done since the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was set up but he felt much more could be and needed to be done both at the Central and the State levels.

For instance, he pointed out that more than half the identified beneficiaries of the "Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers" were yet to be rehabilitated. He said State Governments needed to be more pro-active in implementing the scholarships and hostel schemes for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. Issue of disability certificates should be expedited, preferably within a month of the date of application, he said.

Discussions at the meeting on such topics should be guided by a sense of compassion, by principles of social justice and by an obligation to care and provide for all disadvantaged sections, he added.

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