Serious mobility challenges resulting in loss of livelihood and lack of access to relief have pushed large sections of people with vision impairment further towards marginalisation.

In 2006, Score Foundation, which works with people with vision impairment set up a helpline for the blind which emerged from the response to a weekly programme, ‘Eyeway – ye hai roshni ka karvaan’ (caravan of light), on All India Radio (AIR), which was informative, inspirational and empowering. In 2015, with a view to addressing the language diversity and provide local solutions, Eyeway evolved into a network of helplines run by partner NGOs in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi, which handles the Hindi-speaking states. The author, who works for SCORE Foundation, writes about how the last three months have been spent in responding to the distress calls from visually impaired in different parts of the country.

Until three months ago, Delhi-based Ritu Jain and Darshana Jain in Mumbai were part of a team of visually impaired counsellors, handling a toll-free national helpline for blind people, called Eyeway. They were fielding about 1500 calls a month from persons seeking guidance regarding education, employment, legal provisions, accessibility and social security.

However, since the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown, all they have been getting is distress calls with stories of pain and desperation from all over the country – Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

According to the Indian government, there are 5.4 million people with vision impairment in the country (activists put the figure at 42 million, while the World Health Organisation gives an estimate of around 62 million). A large section of this population is either unemployed and dependent on government provisions or working as daily wagers in the unorganised sector.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, serious mobility challenges resulting in loss of livelihood have not only pushed them further towards marginalisation but also severely dented their chances of survival.

Since the nationwide lockdown in March, the Eyeway helpline has received hundreds of distress calls seeking emergency support with ration and medicines.

Take the case of Pradeep Kumar, who worked as a masseur in Mumbai, earning Rs 300-400 per day, which was sufficient to cover his family’s expenses. He was also able to look after his bed-ridden mother-in-law. But his life went haywire after the implementation of the lockdown. “I received flour and rice just once from the local administration but nothing thereafter. Our family can do nothing about the situation but wait. Sometimes, if we get lucky, we get cooked meals distributed by the locals’’, says Pradeep.

With government guidelines to maintain social distancing, Pradeep’s nature of work, which requires physical touch, has become unviable, making income avenues uncertain in the near future.

Mehboob Khan lives with his ageing parents in Washim, in Maharashtra. His disability pension is the only means of procuring rations for his family. Due to unexplained reasons, his pension was stopped a few months before the lockdown. With the suspension of public transport, he is unable to report his grievance.

Sometime back, the local administration distributed some rations that were shared among his three older brothers and their families. All three of them are daily wage labourers and are currently out of work.

Mehboob says, ‘’I understand that the government has to take measures to contain the spread of Coronavirus, but how are disabled people like me, who rely on disability pension for survival, expected to sustain ourselves if accessing such welfare schemes becomes a hassle?’’

The stories are unending. Muskaan Noria from Gujarat, living with her mother and two younger brothers, one of whom is also blind, ran out of rations. Pooja from Lucknow and Vimla from Prayagraj, both pursuing their graduation, sought help for food supplies.

Dhirendra Chauhan called the helpline in panic — his visually impaired wife’s delivery was imminent. Although he and his wife are from Etawah (Uttar Pradesh), they had gone to Jabalpur to visit some relatives. Stuck there, away from home, the blind couple was struggling with food and medical expenses.

A hostel in Pune housing 40 blind girls was caught totally unprepared when the lockdown was announced. The hostel administration ran out of everyday supplies and money.

Responding to such calls from across the country, Eyeway mobilised a network of volunteers and NGOs to arrange for rations, medicines, other essentials and even financial aid. Many individuals were quick to respond and offer donations to those in need.

The Centre and state governments announced numerous relief measures to cover the vulnerable population. Specific guidelines on facilitating greater access to these relief packages for the disabled population were also issued. But there is a great deal of ambiguity in the on-ground implementation process. Many of our visually impaired callers are unaware of such schemes and how to access them. As a result, they remain devoid of benefits sanctioned for their convenience.

There have been instances where several visually impaired people were turned away by local implementation agencies involved in ration distribution because they couldn’t produce a ration card or an equivalent government document. Even in states where announcements for rations to be handed out against a simple form were made, distribution agents have been insensitive to the challenges faced by the visually impaired.

In such a scenario, the district level officials on duty need to be sensitised and made aware of the numerous problems faced by the blind population. Accordingly, instructions and relaxations should be introduced wherever necessary in ensuring their access to the amenities required.

While NGOs and individuals have been contributing generously to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, the question is how long can such a model of assistance sustain? What is urgently needed is an empathetic approach from the state to devise a sustainable and efficient mechanism for reaching out to disabled citizens and addressing their immediate needs at a time of such dire crisis.

Shabnam Durani

Courtesy The Wire