CSR Vision Volume – 6, Issue: 8, December 2017
An indefatigable accessibility crusader, Ms. Sminu Jindal is a visionary entrepreneur who broke the myth that women cannot lead the big business entities. She successfully took the Jindal SAW Limited, a part of the $18 billion Jindal Group of Industries, to greater heights. In 2000, she founded ‘Svayam’- an initiative of the S.J. Charitable Trust, with an aim to make this world, particularly India, accessible and dignified for the people with reduced mobility. Svayam has worked with ministries, departments and organizations to bring about path-breaking changes in the accessibility landscape in India, including making the World Heritage Site Qutub Minar accessible to the people with reduced mobility.
In a brief chat with Mr. Santosh Kumar, the CSR Vision correspondent, Ms. Sminu Jindal, MD, Jindal SAW Ltd. & Founder-Chairperson, Svayam, talks about lack of awareness about accessibility, importance of making rural India accessible, accessibility as a CSR option, and how inclusive schooling can be a game changer, among other things. Excerpts from the interview:
When people hear the word ‘Accessibility’, they immediately link it with the disabled or disability, while the truth is that accessibility is required by anyone with reduced mobility such as the elderly, expecting mother and the injured. How do you remove this ‘Big Confusion’ and convince people as well as the policymakers about this everyone’s need?
“There is a widespread lack of awareness about accessibility which benefits all” – Ms. Sminu Jindal, MD, Jindal SAW Ltd. & Founder-Chairperson, Svayam
That is very true. Due to lack of awareness, people generally assume that accessibility is only for the disabled. Also, people are either too sympathetic or totally apathetic towards the persons with disabilities. We need to accept that people with disabilities need opportunity, not charity. They are as normal as anyone else, and they don’t deserve any less or more dignity. And disability does not mean ‘inability’.
I think a greater, sustained and robust awareness is needed to spread the message amongst the people as well as the policymakers and other stakeholders that accessibility is for all; it benefits everyone. Doesn’t an accessible toilet help a pregnant lady, an elderly with reduced mobility or an injured, or a patient who just had an operation? Does a ramp only help a wheelchair user?
You have already made a name for yourself in the domain of accessibility, but there is lot to be done. What are your priority areas of action in this sector both at the level of policy as well as action?
Raising awareness is our top priority. Today, India’s 65% population is under 35, which means we will have the same number of elderly population after 30-40 years. So, we need to plan now. Secondly, as India is 70 per cent rural, accessibility is crucial in remote areas and villages. India can be made accessible only when rural India is accessible. The government should add accessibility as a non-negotiable clause in rural schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Gram Awas Yojana, so that a portion of fund is spent on making village infrastructure accessible.
Accessibility is crucial in huge impact areas such as railways, public infrastructure, various modes of transport, tourism and education, as it benefits a large population. So we focus more on these segments.
What do you think about the Government’s mission, “Sarva Siksha Abhiyan” (Education for All)? Does it help children with disabilities?
The Government’s mission, “Sarva Siksha Abhiyan” (Education for All) is a very good idea, but we have to ensure that every child with disabilities get to school. For this, we need accessible school environment, trained and sensitized teachers, awareness, and accessible school transportation. PM’s slogan ‘Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas’ epitomizes the ethos of this great nation. But as I said, we need to take along everyone.
Parents of children with disabilities may feel that special schools are better places for their kids to get education, and that their children may face discomfort in regular schools, but they should understand that today’s discomfort will make their children face the world bravely when they grow up; they will be better equipped to handle the complexities and diversity of life. It will also sensitize other children towards the needs of the children with disabilities, so that they will appreciate the differences. This is true inclusion.
What has been your experience of working in the field of accessibility? What are the issues that you come across?
I feel lack of awareness is the main hurdle. That is why accessibility is often much lower on our priority list. Accessibility is also often neglected at the planning stage. If minimum non-negotiable clauses are added at the planning stage itself, we can save a lot of money because retro-fitting, post the completion of a project, costs 25-30% more.
As per a study conducted by our publication for the Department of Disability Affairs, GOI, awareness about disabilities and accessibility amongst the corporate is insignificant. As per your understanding what needs be done to generate awareness amongst the corporate India to enable them to do justice to their CSR budget by focusing on the disability and accessibility sector?
CSR Vision’s findings echo my perception. CEOs are no exceptions; they are not aware about potentials of enabling environment created by accessibility to attract and retain a committed and diverse manpower. They also look at disability as a charity, as opposed to persons with disabilities as equal rights holders. This charity approach is not sustainable. Time has come that Indian CEOs look at persons with disabilities as potential employees. They need to modify their HR policy to make it more inclusive. Researches also reveal that employees with disabilities are more committed, stay longer with their companies, and are more motivated. Companies only need to provide accessibility, and reasonable accommodation at workplaces. The cost for making offices accessible is negligible as compared to the value these employees add to the company.
We also need to work with persons with disabilities and their families, so as to bring a change in their attitude and perception towards life and work.
Traditionally, CSR budget is spent on segments like environment protection, skill development, health, girl child education, etc. After the latest amendments in the Companies Act, areas related to accessibility, inclusive education, culture, disability sports have also been added to the list which can be funded under the CSR budget. However, very few companies consider these new areas.
In absence of any committed action by the Government in the development of accessible infrastructure, what initiatives can be taken by the civil society/NGO to ensure the public infrastructure is accessible in the whole country, especially rural areas?
We can’t say that the government has no committed plan or action for accessibility. But yes, things might get delayed due to bureaucratic hurdles, or simply dye to lack of expertise and awareness. The role of NGOs is crucial in many ways. As I said more actions are needed in rural India, NGOs can help build the right momentum and make it a movement, empower people, raise consensus, and link the cause of accessibility to safety, well being and enhancing the quality of life for all.
You are known as an accessibility champion; accessibility is closer to your soul. You are also heading Jindal SAW Limited. How do you balance family life and work when your pursuit is so big and the pressure is so tremendous?
Accessibility is about quality of life, and giving opportunity to everyone to contribute to the GDP and the National Happiness Index (NHI). I think everyone should be an accessibility champion as it affects all of us at some point of our lives. Accessibility also ensures that old and disabled people live, and not just breathe.
Yes the work pressure is too much, but when your work is your passion, you don’t get tired, bored or detached. I am also fortunate to have a family which shares my passion, and is always there to support me, motivate me and tell me ‘never say die’. I am really very thankful to my family.
And today after 17 long years, Svayam has lakhs of people to support its mission. “हम अकेले ही चले थे जानिब-ए -मंज़िल मगर, लोग साथ आते गए और कारवां बनता गया ” |
P.S. – This interview was originally published in CSR Vision Magazine and its PDF version is available at link CSR Vision [December 2017 edition](PDF File size 5.32MB)