by Mridu Khullar
- India / USA -
For five years, Jitender Kumar was unable to find employment. He gave interviews every week, was rejected constantly, and sank into depression as sources of income dwindled and he became increasingly dependent on his parents for financial support.
Mr. Kumar is 33, married, and has two daughters. He is also an amputee with no left leg.
People with disabilities are among the most excluded in Indian society. According to a 2007 World Bank report, disabled adults in India have far lower employment rates than others - reduced from 43% in 1991 to 38% in 2002.
"In one factory where I went seeking work, the manager told me I was a burden on society. He insulted me and threw me out," says Mr. Kumar. "I am disabled. But I am also an honest and hard-working man."
Among the few industries in India that have made efforts to incorporate workers with disabilities is the garment industry. "The awareness, and consequently the numbers, have increased substantially in the last five years," says Dr. Rajesh Bheda, a corporate consultant and formerly a professor and chairperson with the National Institute of Fashion Technology. "There is better coordination between training organizations who train workers with disabilities and companies that will hire them."
The Apparel Export Promotion Council, in fact, now runs special programs to train disabled workers. Other non-government organizations and some garment export manufacturers have also taken the initiative to start informal training centers or take people on and prepare them for the nuances of garment production work.
It all started almost two decades ago at a red light in New Delhi.
Rashmi Paliwal, the owner of two garment houses, was approached by a physically and mentally impaired beggar while on her way to work. She refused to give him money, but handed him her business card and urged him to come to her office the next day for a job interview.
Though Ms. Paliwal had made this same offer to dozens of beggars before, none ever showed up. But the next day, this man slowly climbed up the stairs to her office.
He turned out to be from the Spastics Society and upon hearing that Ms. Paliwal had employed one of their members, the organization started sending her more people.
After Ms. Paliwal employed 17 people with disabilities in her workforce of 350, she was given the Helen Keller Award in 1999.
"I was ashamed getting that award," she says. "I had only employed 17 people. That's nothing."
Today, she has three training centers in and around Delhi where disabled people are provided free training in order to make them employable in the garment industry. She also has a network of over 30 exporters who then absorb these trained employees into their garment-production factories.
"[Ms. Paliwal] has played a big role in the creation of job opportunities for people with disabilities," says Dr. Bheda. "Her factory acted like a training ground, and over a period of time other manufacturers have seen through her example that it can work."
The industry, he says, even though fragmented into many skills and sections, "hires [workers with disabilities] more often, and has a history of employing them with little discrimination." It is more receptive, he says, of people with varying physical and mental abilities. Projects like Ms. Paliwal's further reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are no less productive than other able-bodied workers.
"It is much easier to incorporate people with disabilities into industries where precision-level and handmade work is required," says Dr. Madhumita Puri, the Director of the Society for Child Development, which also hosts the Disability India Network. She says small garment exporters have outsourced handmade work to slum areas with large numbers of disabled workers for years. What's significant now, is that upscale manufacturing companies are doing it too.
"Our only problem is that the supply [of workers] is limited," Dr. Bheda explains. "We sensitize buyers and exporters, but sometimes there aren't enough trained workers." This is primarily because of social attitudes in India, and the stigma associated with mental and physical disorders that prevent people with disabilities from being active in community and professional life. The World Bank report notes that in India, "disability [is] perceived either as punishment for misdeeds in the past lives of the [person with disability], or the wrongdoings of their parents."
"They're hidden in society," he says. "They're neither easily reachable, nor connected."
In the Radnik Exports factory in Okhla, New Delhi, disabled workers form an important part of the workforce. They stitch, package and check garments that will be supplied to chains such as H&M, Max, Gap, and Walmart, which are then sold in North America, Europe, and some parts of Asia.
The Managing Director of Radnik Exports, Mr. Nikunj Kapur says there is a definite incline in the standard of living of the people who've worked in his company. "You can see it in their appearance, you can see it in the clothes they wear, and also on a more psychological level, you can see that there is an understanding that they're fulfilling a role."
Mr. Jitender Kumar, who for five years struggled without a job or any source of income, trained with Ms. Paliwal two years ago, and has been working with Radnik Exports for more than a year.
"It has changed everything," he says. "The happiest day for me is when I receive my salary, and I go back home and give it to my family. I send my daughter to an English-medium school, I get respect in my community - I am no longer taunted by people about my lack of income."
Polio took his leg, and along with it, his self-respect. Employment has helped him start a new life. "I walk to work every day," he says. "It's good exercise."
Mridu's article is part of this month's focus on disability issues. - Ed.
About the Author
Mridu Khullar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. For the past six years, she has written extensively about human rights and women's issues in Asia and Africa. Her work has been published in Time, Elle, Marie Claire, Ms., Women’s eNews, and East West, among others.
Khullar is currently a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Visit her website at www.mridukhullar.com.