Enumerative Practices of the Indian State and the Disabled: Avinash Shahi

Guest post by AVINASH SHAHI

The 2011 Census release on disabled population in India is shocking, exposing the fallacious methodology and technique used by census enumerators while counting the disabled population in the country. According to census figures, the population of disabled people has gone up to 26.8 million in 2011. In the last decade the numbers have increased just below six million from 21.9 million in 2001. Surprisingly, these low numbers follow the collaboration between the Census Commission, NCPEPD and Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre (DEOC) for sensitizing, and imparting training to census master trainers.

The idea was to frame questions on disability and include these in the Census questionnaire. Nonetheless, millions have yet again been rendered invisible.  In 2001, the Census Commission collected data on five categories of disability among different disabled groups, and found that visual disability emerged as the top category at 48.5%. The other disabilities population enumerated by the census were as follows in descending order: In movement (27.9%), Mental (10.3%), in speech (7.5%), and in hearing (5.8%). In contrast, the 2011 Census initial release percentage among different disabled categories has changed drastically. The persons with blindness now stand at third place. 

In the 2011 Census, despite eight categories unlike five in the previous Census count, there are 14.9 million men with disabilities as compared to 11.8 million women in the country with the total number of disabled people over 18 million in the rural areas and just 8.1 million enumerated in the urban settings. The percentage of men with disabilities is 2.41 as against 2.01 in women. In percentage terms, it has merely risen from 2.13 per cent to 2.21 per cent. It seems the enumerators were not sensitized and made aware amply about counting disabled particularly in rural India.

In India, despite huge disability, ascertaining exact data on disability is really a daunting task simply because census enumerators do not ask disability related questions in ways that would elicit accurate responses. Just consider two ways of asking questions: (A) do you have any disability? (B) Do you have difficulty seeing, even if you wear glasses? Both questions will elicit different answers. However, our enumerators only ask whether any member of the household is disabled? Or do you have disability? Such questions are unlikely to elicit correct response from households, because the stigma attached with disability prevents people from revealing disability. Therefore how questions are asked is very important to get exact figures. Besides, what disability means is not shared a discourse, and therefore the nature of question asked must factor in the difficulties of translating lived experience framed by cultural categories into governmental categories.

Purpose of census: The census exercise is undertaken for various purposes such as monitoring of functioning in population, provisioning of services and equalization of opportunities. Yet governmentality does not take disability seriously even though there is far more public awareness and advocacy today for disability rights? It would appear that the census design is exclusionary since it is now an accepted principle that the more people who are living with particular functional limitations, the more visible the issue will be. The data on disability is collected to design and implement programmes aimed at providing services to disabled population. Data on disability also helps policy makers to assess the impact of having a limitation on individual and their families; the aim of inclusive development is to enable all people to gain equal opportunity in their lives. But census figures of 2011 has done injustice to millions disabled persons who will be left out from obtaining services for their subsistence.

 The World Bank Report on Disability in India in 2007: The World Bank undertook an exercise for counting disabled people for commissioning international aid, and found, “While estimates vary, there is growing evidence that people with disabilities comprise between 4 and 8 per cent of the India population (around 40-90 million individuals)” Interestingly, this report was “prepared at the request of the Government of India”. In fact, it acknowledges “the guidance of officials of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, guidance provided by an inter-ministerial Technical Advisory Group set up for the work by MOSJE and consisting of representatives from the Ministries of Health, Labour, Human Resource Development and Rural development, as well as an NGO representative.” In short, the World Bank Team had the full backing and support of the Government of India and many State governments. It is then perplexing that the 2011 Census has excluded millions disabled population which is a grave concern for disability sector. The marginal increase in the disabled population showed by the Census 2011 clearly reflects the able-bodied neo-liberal politics of the Indian state posing newer challenges for disability rights activism in India. We can only hope that the National Sample Survey Organization will use more inclusive methods of enumeration. It is indeed ironic that developed countries have a higher percentage of disabled despite less population, and developing countries like India whose population is 2.1 billion population enumerate only 2.21 per cent disabled population.

 Avinash Shahi is researching disability rights for his M.Phil dissertation at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance

6 thoughts on “Enumerative Practices of the Indian State and the Disabled: Avinash Shahi”

  1. Thanks Avinash for this important discussion. I feel that there are additional areas related to this subject that need more reflection.

    For example, I feel that it is difficult to de-link counting of persons with disabilities from the purpose for which this done. If you are counting persons for deciding who gets a pension or who gets a technical appliance or who needs home care – for each purpose you need to pose the question differently and we are going to end with different numbers. If disability is about barriers faced by persons in different aspects of their lives, the numbers would be completely different.

    The Washington group of questions (of which you have given one example) for counting disabled persons, have resulted in WHO to come out with the first world disability report that says 15% of a population has a disability. However, using those criteria in a research in north Karnataka, we found that a number of disabled persons were not considered as disabled, though they were facing severe barriers in their communities.

    Looking at disability as being on different places along a continuum of functions, it is difficult to exclude the role of the context. Thus, if in one context a functional limitation does not need to any significant disability, in another context this may be different. In this sense, gender context plays an important role.

    Thanks once again for this stimulating article, that has so much more for discussions!

  2. Really a much stimulative article Avinash! this exposes the grave differences in implementing plans and policies on the paper and implementing them in the field. the reasons for such an exclusion may be highly diversified requiring a multi-dimentional research. A small example: in Tamilnadu, only persons in hold of the national disability identity card were counted as disabled! (information shared by my friend and RTI activist Mr. M.Sivakumar). in that terms, 2001 sensex, without the special trainings though, seems to be more fruitful…

  3. Imp subject It is very difficuroper polilt to get tests done.no equipments in Govt Hospitals.Lithargic Sociolwelfare Dpt Authentic no not known No proper policies.Hope new Govt will help our children

  4. With the field of Neonatology going through a transitional stage in India, an increase in disability rates are to be expected for a few years before they stabilize or improve. This has been documented very well in the western world, for example in the US where there was an increase in neuro-developmental disabilities rates in late 20th century due to increased survival of critically ill newborns, particularly premature ones. India needs to be truthful about its disability census methodology and data as a first step to improve the infrastructure to handle the possibility of increased numbers of disabled children and adults.

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