Counting the disabled

The Centre is set to enumerate an unprecedented number of disabilities in the February 2011 population count. The move is an advance over the last decennial exercise where this vast and vulnerable segment was enumerated for only the second time since Independence. Information will be sought from persons who suffer multiple impairments. The mentally ill and the mentally retarded are to be counted under separate heads. People can also declare any impairment they may be afflicted with, other than the ones specified. Finally, disability-related queries have been moved up in the questionnaire, enhancing the chances of better reporting and coverage. Contrast this with the official thinking in the past, as reflected in the fact that the first three headcounts in free India did not enumerate the disabled. The reasoning was that given prevailing stereotypes and prejudices, the overwhelming tendency would be for families to conceal rather than disclose the relevant information.

This exclusion should explain, at least in part, the wide discrepancy between official figures and global estimates of the percentage of the disabled in the overall population, and also the government's failure on the policy formulation and resource allocation fronts. The overall benefits from an increasing thrust on data collection on a wide gamut of impairing conditions far outweigh the problems of accuracy and certainty, which is in any case inherent to the census operation as a whole. The advantages cannot be dismissed lightly, especially since disability is known to be both a cause and a consequence of poverty. The issue of age-related impairments is another important dimension in view of the increase in longevity as a consequence of India's unfolding demographic transition. And, one should not lose sight of the innumerable instances of limbs and livelihoods lost owing to prolonged armed conflicts. Come February, the enumerators and voluntary organisations will have their task cut out.


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