Children of the Chinar, Season 3, Special series on young achivers in Kashmir, Wheelchair Hero
Javed Ahmad Tak, is a renowned social activist, taking up issues of disability rights. A victim of the armed conflict in Kashmir himself, he was rendered permanently disabled. Since then, Tak has made it his life’s mission to advocate, educate and bring to light the challenges that face the community of disabled individuals, especially in the inaccessible areas of the Kashmir valley. His organisation, the Humanity Welfare Organisation Helpline, is the most prominent collective in Kashmir that has taken up a range of issues under its purview. Tak, at the onset of his journey as a social worker, set up a school for disabled friendly education as he identified the gaps in the present education system. He named the school the Zaiba Appa Institute of Inclusive Education, after his grandmother. His relentless pursuit of equal rights and dignity for the differently-abled community conferred him with the title of the Padma Shri in 2020.
Javed Ahmad Tak is a pioneering activist for the differently-abled in Kashmir.
Aayushi Sharma (AS): First of all, thank you for sitting down with me for this interview. I would like to start by asking you about how you decided to take up the issues of disability inclusion. What has your journey been like?
Javed Ahmad Tak (JAT): Actually, I was a student of degree college in my district of Anantnag. At that time the conflict was very high in Kashmir and people were asked to not be affiliated with politicians or political parties but my cousin himself was a politician. One day some armed people came to our house and tried to kidnap my cousin. We had an altercation with them and they opened fire indiscriminately in our house and I got a hit in my spine. I was taken to the hospital and the doctors told me that I am likely to be crippled for the rest of my life. They said at present there is no treatment available and so my injury led to a permanent disability. For almost three years after that I was in deep trauma, struggling to restart my life. I started my new life by giving free tuition to children who were orphaned, militancy victims, those whose parents were killed due to the militancy in Kashmir and those who couldn't afford education. Later on it became a mission and a lot of children, mostly those who had dropped out from schools, came to approach me.
After years of doing this, I realized how disability limits the sphere of influence of a person as they become dependent on others. Finally, I decided to shift attention to the children with disabilities who had dropped out. I had started a kind of census in my own area to understand how many disabled children were there in my vicinity and in the nearby 5-10 villages. I gave free tuition to those children. Some of these children went on to pass the 12th standard and went to college even. These children helped me a lot and I shared my aim with them that I want to understand the struggles of the children with disabilities and identify the problems in the education system. I realized eventually that there are so many problems, special educators are not available, learning and teaching materials for blind, deaf and for children with intellectual disabilities were just not available. I tried to reach out to the government to develop facilities, some changes did happen with advocacy but later on I decided that it was just not possible to have all the facilities in government schools. They did not seem to accommodate children with disabilities and finally I started a school for these children. We called it the Zaiba Appa Institute of Inclusive Education and our aim was to include the disabled and non-disabled children together. We started rehabilitation, education, vocational training, sports, music and arts for children with mixed and cross disabilities.
AS: Brilliant, so throughout this journey, what kind of help or assistance did you have in achieving your goal?
JAT: Actually there was not much assistance. There is a government policy that whenever you start a philanthropic, non governmental initiative or a trust, there should be a three year investment and experience. Three years of audit notes, activity notes and registration proof before the application of any financial assistance. Since I was a militancy victim myself, I got a governmental rehabilitation compensation of 75, 000 INR ( Approximately 905 USD). It was a very meagre amount and I was denying that money for quite some time. After 2001, when I had the idea of creating a centre for children with disabilities, I claimed that money and invested that amount on this project. We started with installing some computers and we levied a meagre fee of 100 INR (approximately 1 USD) per month for the Below Poverty Line and orphaned children. This computer centre gave us a lot of revenue. At that time it was not at all affordable to have computers at home and even the other IT centres were charging a lot of money. We also gave basic training in computer operation and we taught them Word, Excel programs and access to the internet to these children and we just charged 300 INR ( approximately 3 USD) for a course of 3 months.
Jnana Prabodhini, an organisation based in Maharashtra, saw our work over here in Kashmir. They praised our initiative but asked us what is lacking. We said that there is a problem of certification of the courses we are providing. So they stepped forward and gave certificates under their name that were credible to help the children get jobs ahead. Similarly, many registered organisations came forward and started helping us.
We finally registered our own organisation - the Humanity Welfare Organisation Helpline in 2003. We then had a donation receipt book and we got little donations initially. People were giving little sums of money and that too during the holy month of Ramadan. Finally in 2007, the Director of Child Rights and You (CRY) came to us and we had already reached out to them about our aims to work for the children with disabilities. The CRY team said that we need to have a proposal for the money we need, we made the proposal for the budget of vocational trainers, infrastructure, special educators, drivers, physical therapists and presented it to them. They gave us about 11,00,000 INR ( approximately 13000 USD) as the budget for one year. This amount covered all the activities of outreach programs, awareness programs, census in local villages, healthcare programs, inclusive sports events, disability certificates, organising events for World Disability Day and so in 2008 we formally started these activities with this amount. We even hired new people. So our work now involved advocacy as well as educational services.
AS: Right, so you mentioned the Humanity Welfare Organization. Could you tell me how this particular organisation came to be established?
JAT: Actually, those students who received tuition from me initially, gave me a clue that for it to sustain in the long run we would need money. They suggested that we register an organisation. So it was in 2003 that we finally did but this time was very volatile in Kashmir because of the militancy. So while getting registered there was a rigorous process to prove that no one is affiliated with the militant organisations. By the grace of god, everything went right although it took a lot of time for us to be registered, almost two years to get the No Objection Certificate from the police. After getting registered our motive was that we will focus everything on the disability sector.
I started writing to the authorities, civil secretariat, ministers, divisional commissioners, state social welfare departments about the needs and problems of the children with disabilities. We also filed RTIs, we also filed a number of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) in the High Court. So it became an advocacy program. We also decided to name the school as Zaiba Appa Institute for Inclusive Education after my grandmother who herself was a social worker working for burn victims in Kashmir.
So in Humanity Welfare, we are now pushing the rights of persons with disabilities. We try to focus on the implementation of acts and laws on disability such as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which our country has ratified. We make disabled people also aware about these acts so that they know about their rights. I believe once you become a victim of something, you must rise up and become an advocate for these same issues because now you know these problems at length.
As you know, Kashmir is mostly inaccessible because people live in hilly terrains. People were largely unaware of various schemes for disabled people. There are social security schemes, mobility aids, assistive devices like four wheeled scooters for orthopaedic disabled, different reading gadgets for blind children so they could read in braille. We took it as our responsibility to make people aware of all this and ensure these services are accessible to them. We need to make them aware that these are not charities but their rights as disabled people. There is another problem of people not getting jobs to sustain their livelihood. We, at Humanity Welfare, are trying to empower these people through livelihood generation projects. We are trying to mobilise people and other organisations such as the Tata Relief Trust to provide employment opportunities to these people. Many people, especially women with disabilities, also ended up becoming successful small scale entrepreneurs in their regions.
AS: You have already touched upon several challenges that people with disabilities face. In your experience of working in this sector for so long, specific to Kashmir, what is the situation of the disabled-friendly infrastructure over there?
JAT: There is already a huge problem of accessibility. The common infrastructure in itself is also not accessible. The saddening part is that on 3rd December 2015, the Prime Minister launched the Accessible India Campaign. The aim was that India would be made accessible and made disabled friendly- ramps would be built and lifts would be installed. The old infrastructure was to be made disabled friendly but over the years a lot of money for this project was lapsed by the J&K administration because it was not utilised properly. So accessibility is very bad here. Not just infrastructure, the access to services is also a problem. When the government is moving towards e-governance, they are not considering the blind and the deaf, the ones who have learning disabilities and communication gaps. At present the government has started renewing the social security fund through online mode. Think of the child who has intellectual disabilities and their parents have no knowledge of computers, how will she upload his credentials and so on. These are the problems we are facing over here in Kashmir.
There is also a shrinkage of stakeholders, we only have the Lieutenant Governor administration, there are only 10 district commissioners who are responsible for functioning. Our problems are also not addressed properly. We have a Disability Commission that was stopped in 2019 and restarted again recently but we don't know whether the main office is in Jammu or Srinagar as the main capitals keep changing. Whatever problems we have, we have to wait for at least six months before the offices and the capital can shift back to Srinagar. This is the main problem we are facing.
AS: So, with this I have come to the end of this interview. Do you have any messages for our readers ?
JAT: My only message is that even when we see beautiful faces, they too have challenges. When we see people who lead luxurious lives, they too have challenges. So, we should not just see our disabilities, we should see our abilities and we should utilise that. Challenges would exist until we exist so we can take the movement forward. If you are the victim of anything, try to be the leader of that problem so you can be a reformer in your way. Maybe higher level things would not change but small changes will definitely happen.
AS: Thank you Javed, this was a very powerful message that you have for us. Thank you again for speaking with me!
JAT: Thank you!