By Prachi Salve and Swagata Yadavar/ IndiaSpend.org
Every day at 7 pm, Munjaba Shingare, 42, leaves his home in Vangani village in Thane district, to begin his work day. Carrying his dholki, a two-headed drum, he takes a 10-minute walk through the town centre to reach the train station. Here, he takes on the task of crossing seven busy railway tracks on foot, reaching the platform to board the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train that will take him to Kurla, one of Mumbai’s busiest stations.
What makes his journey riskier is the fact that Shingare is visually impaired. He earns a living singing devotional songs on the train, braving unruly crowds, a complete lack of differently-abled-friendly infrastructure, and police harassment. He returns home by 11.30 pm.
“We, the blind, are no strangers to darkness,” he tells IndiaSpend, when asked if crossing the tracks at night is more dangerous.
Shingare is part of a 300-strong community of visually impaired individuals living in Vangani, which has a population of more than 12,000. Most members of this unique community earn their livelihood on the train, either hawking small trinkets, or by singing and seeking alms.
Since the 1990s, visually impaired people who had come to look for jobs in Mumbai started settling in Vangani for its lower rents.
In 2008, a local politician, Ravindra Patil, announced a scheme to provide them free housing, and Vangani began to attract greater numbers of visually challenged people. Mr Patil was murdered in 2010 and the housing scheme failed to take off. However, the sense of community and support that the early arrivals fostered has been drawing in visually impaired people ever since.
Their experience offers a glimpse at the challenges facing India’s five million visually impaired people.
The visually challenged form 18.6 per cent of India’s 26.8 million differently-abled population, of whom 15.7 million are in the employable age of 15 to 59 years. Yet, 60.4 per cent of differently-abled – 9.49 million people — are either without work or are marginally employed, the 2011 Census data show.
In Vangani, the older inhabitants help the newcomers settle in by hand-holding them in setting up their hawking and other work, and in navigating the trains.
“The locals of Vangani have always been welcoming towards the visually impaired community here,” Kishor Shelar, husband of Vangani sarpanch Ketaki Shelar, told IndiaSpend.
He said the town has recently got a Braille library which stocks books from the National Association for the Blind. He said his wife, the sarpanch, ensures that the money budgeted for the welfare of the differently-abled is utilised.
A thin man with a quiet manner, Shingare — who arrived in Vangani in 1999 — says he dropped out of his BA, but has cleared three examinations in music, in addition to completing a course in typing.
On failing to get a job, he made his way to Vangani. “I was frustrated when after applying for a job at the Regional Transport Office after completing my 12th, the officer remarked, ‘If we give them [the differently-abled] jobs, that will mean fewer jobs for us.'”
He is now married to Usha, who is also visually impaired, and they have two children. They live in a rented accommodation, getting by on the roughly Rs 5,000 he earns each month.
IndiaSpend met 20 members of Vangani’s visually impaired community and asked them about their education, livelihood and awareness about government schemes. Many of them have life stories similar to Shingare’s — 62 per cent of them have completed 10 years of schooling, but have struggled to find regular work.
Ashish Housay, 28, completed a diploma in education from Latur, and has been trying to get a job in the central government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for four years. In private schools in his native Marathwada, he was asked for bribes ranging from Rs 8-10 lakh, due to which he stopped trying there. He currently works in an orchestra, which itself is not doing well these days, he says.
Most of the visually impaired resort to employment in the unorganised sector — 15 of the 20 surveyed said they earned their livelihood by hawking. Many of them struggled to make ends meet — 16 of 20 earned less than Rs 5,000 per month; most earned only Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000. This works out to less than Rs 30 per person per day in a family of four, which is below the poverty line.
Of the respondents, 16 said more than one member — usually both spouses — in their family was differently-abled. Families of those with multiple disabilities usually depend on the generosity of neighbours and community members to get by.
Asha, 40, and her husband Manohar Waghmare, 60, form one such household. Manohar has had paralysis in his legs since the age of two, and both he and Asha are visually impaired.
Asha worked in a woollens factory in Andheri, but shifted to Vangani after marrying Manohar 20 years ago. She has had no job since then and the couple have no source of income. The Shingares, their neighbours, take care of them.
The government has numerous schemes to provide skills training to the differently-abled under a national action plan, including skills training by the National Skill Development Corporation and technical and vocational courses from Industrial Training Institutes.
Other schemes provide finance, such as the micro-financing scheme of the National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation that offers loans of up to Rs 50,000 for those with more than 40 per cent disability and aged over 18 years.
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) helped many Vangani residents apply for the micro-finance scheme. Very few succeeded in getting funding, and it took between one and three years for the money to be disbursed.
Although all respondents had disability cards, most of them either knew nothing about any schemes or only knew about one, the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Scheme that gives beneficiaries Rs 600 per month, or Rs 900 per month to two eligible members within one family.
Only two of the 20 respondents had actually received the amount. Acquiring benefits under this scheme is not easy — one needs an income certificate, a domicile certificate and several other documents, and the application process itself takes six months to a year, Shingare said.
Numerous government programmes purport to provide the differently-abled with a host of benefits ranging from free transport to reservation in government jobs. However, 51 per cent of the differently-abled do not have the ID cards they require to access these benefits.
Prejudices often deny them access to education, the most reliable route to employment and self-reliance. As the experience of Vangani’s community shows, even education does not guarantee jobs.
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform, with whom Pracho Salve is an analyst and Swagata Yadavar is principal correspondent. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read the report here: http://www.indiaspend.com/cover-story/vanganis-visually-challenged-community-a-struggle-for-livelihood-and-dignity-62748)