SURESH KUSHTAGI

India,

To raise the visibility of the disabled in villages of India, Suresh Kushtagi is enabling disabled citizens to have a voice in village affairs and to contribute actively to their communities.

This profile below was prepared when Suresh Kushtagi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

To raise the visibility of the disabled in villages of India, Suresh Kushtagi is enabling disabled citizens to have a voice in village affairs and to contribute actively to their communities.




THE NEW IDEA

Suresh is leading the disabled citizens' movement for 80 million disabled people in rural India. By building a membership-based organization of disabled people who live in villages, Suresh enables the rural disabled to become active participants in their communities. His organization, Navchetana Organization for People with Disabilities (NOPD), is building collaborative disability networks at local and state levels to ensure that disabled citizens have access to services reserved for them under the Persons with Disabilities Act. The disabled are trained to raise awareness, involve other citizen sector organizations, and ensure effective government implementation of the act. In creating an organized constituency of people, Suresh hopes that disabled Indians will gain the power to influence governments at local, regional, and national levels. His idea has already spread throughout 16 Indian districts with many more on the horizon.




THE PROBLEM

Although as much as 10 percent of India's population is disabled, there is no organized focus on the disability issue. The Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in 1995, but implementation has been only partially achieved. The current movement in the country is focused on urban areas and is disjointed and fragmented. Urban service providers supply few services to rural areas. The rural disabled lack communication with each other, especially as their homes are far and often distant from the road heads. All this contributes to their inability to be resourceful. The demands and needs of disabled people vary according to location and the wide spectrum of disabilities. Further implementation of legal protections and access to resources will reach disabled people only when and if they demand it. For this they need to be well organized.

Organizing at a village level will help disabled citizens see results in their own communities. Currently, in the state of Karnataka, the women and children's welfare commissioner doubles as the disabilities commissioner, which means that there is not even one dedicated full-time staff responsible for disabilities. Public utilities are not disability friendly and travel facilities like buses and trains also overlook the needs of the disabled.

The disability sector is strongly represented by civil society organizations providing services for people with disabilities. However, the 80 million disabled people living in rural areas cannot avail themselves of the services because they are victims of economic backwardness, low literacy, inaccessibility, ignorance, and invisibility. Citizen organizations concentrate on forming networks that focus on disability but fail to represent the disabled themselves.




THE STRATEGY

Suresh is building a movement in India so disabled people receive and provide valuable resources within society. He strongly believes that an organized cross-disability network will be a powerful resource to mainstream citizen sector activities.

Suresh begins by mobilizing rural people to become members of the NOPD. Since most disabled citizens are not aware of the services provided under the disabilities act, representatives travel to villages to explain available services and encourage others to join the network in support. Disabled citizens can access a variety of the services, information, and guidance centers that NOPD has established at all levels. By helping citizens access services like bus passes and employment plans, NOPD ensures that the government spends the money allotted in the Persons with Disabilities Act on those with disabilities.

Suresh networks with disability, civil society, service, and mass organizations to reach his goals. With this broad base of support, a series of meetings has been conducted to establish the state level disability network. Suresh has made it mandatory that only people with disabilities represent these meetings, as he believes they are fully capable of addressing issues related to their lives. Today, the district disability network has its presence in 16 districts. By 2005 it will have a presence in all the 175 taluks of Karnataka state.

Suresh is also a member of the National Disability Network, led by Ashoka Fellow Javed Abidi, and he continues to support other disability organizations through the NOPD while spreading the disability network to 20 other slums. Suresh is strengthening the district and state level networks so people with disabilities will influence the government as well as policies. He is also working to incorporate people with disabilities into the political arena.

NOPD has continued its growth and is now spreading its message through publications like the newsletter Navchetanana. The objective of the newsletter is both to empower the disabled through dissemination of information and to create a platform of care for each other. A NOPD Web site will also further Suresh's goals of building a participatory network of disabled people living and working as active members in society.




THE PERSON

Suresh's first encounter with disability was caring for his polio-afflicted sister. Then, in 1989, a medical condition called neurofibroma forced him to deal with his own disability. In 1993 he was rendered immobile by the lack of proper facilities and a doctor's negligence. Bed ridden, he spent two years confined and dejected. Only in 1995 was he able to pick up the threads of his life when he began working for the social service organization Samuha. A physiotherapist from Samuha supported Suresh in his efforts to regain his mobility.

During his work with Samuha, Suresh became aware of the service providers in the disability sector, but he realized that disabled people were not perceived as a resource for society. Struck by this, he moved to Raichur, a small town in rural Karnataka, which had recorded a high level of disability. His first step was to organize a workshop for Raichur's disabled people to generate awareness regarding their rights under the Persons with Disabilities Act.

In 2000, a man named Eranna, a member of NOPD, was at a government office to fetch a certificate. As a polio sufferer with locomotor disability, Eranna lost his balance and held on to the nearest thing, which happened to be the shirt of a member of the police. Eranna tore the shirt and was charged with manhandling the police personnel. He was brought before the court and released on bail to an advocate member of NOPD. Because of this incident, Eranna committed suicide by setting himself on fire. In response, NOPD formed a joint action committee of students, youth, Dalit, and women to organize protest marches, public meetings, and press conferences forcing the government to examine the matter closely. There was immediate action to transfer the police officials involved in the incident. The joint action committee was successful in urging the deputy commissioner to direct all official departments to maintain a separate line for the people with disabilities and to have a positive attitude toward them. Failure to meet such guidelines would result in serious disciplinary action. Through this work, NOPD appreciated the strength of organizations that unified to achieve one goal and recognized that NOPD too, could be such a resource.