The third interview in the IDAP interview series features Shweta Bansal, an accomplished lawyer at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas, whose appointment to the Indian Foreign Service was recently cleared by the Delhi High Court.
Shweta, who sustained a spinal injury in a car accident when she was 6 which left her orthopedically disabled, pursued her schooling at the prestigious La Martiniere school in Lucknow. She graduated from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in 2007 and secured a job at the erstwhile firm of Amarchand Mangaldas and Suresh A. Shroff & Co.
Shweta appeared for the civil services examinations in 2012 and, despite securing an all India rank of 769 which made her eligible for the IFS, was not allocated a post because of the Union of India’s failure to reserve a post for persons with locomotor disabilities in the IFS. Chastising the Central Government for making Shweta’s future contingent upon a stroke of luck or misfortune, the Delhi High Court, in accordance with the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, directed the Government to issue her a selection letter at the earliest.
This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and transcribed by Anusha Reddy, members of the IDAP Team.
- At the outset, would you mind describing to us the precise nature of your disability so that we can craft subsequent questions about the coping strategies you may have adopted accordingly?
I had a road accident at the age of six while I was coming back from school. I suffered a spinal injury as a result of that. The nerves in the muscles below L3 andL4 areas got damaged and I suffered an orthopedic disability in my legs. I have a problem in both my legs, more so in the left one. There are other obvious related issues which have been there for the past 26-27 years now. This was in 1990.
2. What is the practical impact of your disability on how you move around?
I had to virtually start life all over again. When I had the accident, I was immobile. I was in a hospital for 8-9 months. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Everything was broken from head to toe. I suffered multiple injuries. It was very difficult to be able to walk and to be able to stand. It affected my mobility a lot and it was very difficult to regain mobility because nobody was sure as to what could be the long lasting impact of this. It’s been mostly in terms of mobility and I have to battle stiffness of legs very often.
3. At this point, do you use a wheelchair?
No, I don’t. I’m able to walk.
4. You studied at La Martiniere school in Lucknow and after that you studied at NUJS, Kolkata. What were the kinds of reasonable accommodation your school and law school provided to you and how were your relationships with them in terms of them accepting your disability and providing you the support that you needed?
Honestly, all my life, I have never really felt like I’m disabled. Because people around me never made me feel like that. I myself never took myself to be disabled. So, I think, the first step was I was very okay with the accident. I think that probably reflected in my attitude and it was never a thing to be discussed. At La Martiniere, I had tremendous support of my principal, Mrs. Keeler and Mrs. Abhraham. Mrs. Keeler ensured that all my classes were on the ground floor so that steps could be avoided. In terms of college, in NUJS, teachers were extremely collaborative and helpful.
NUJS in terms of infrastructure was a bit of a hard battle but people were very nice and very collaborative. They ensured that things were easy for you more often than not.
5. When did you graduate from NUJS?
6. Would you say that schools or institutions who have better resources are better equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities? What are the main factors that you think influence such a thing?
Honestly, it is unfortunate that there are 4-5 crore disabled persons in the country and there is very little in terms of infrastructure or in terms of resources allocated to them. I think the mindset is not really a very helpful mindset or where you feel it is very accommodative. It has to stem down from the government. It has to be a priority and not in a very special way. I have always maintained this – that I don’t want concessions and I don’t want anything better. All I want is you make life a little simple, the way you make it for everyone else. It is not really about resources.
Of course, resources are important to build ramps, to get wheelchairs, to get rails, to get classes which are easily accessible to people. But, it is also about what an institution is willing to offer you. Sometimes, even a national law school may not reach out to you in a huge way whereas a smaller institution may. I think it is also about the mindset – it is about priority. In NUJS, despite the fact that there wasn’t much in terms of infrastructure, they were very accommodative. They tried to figure their way around to help me. So, they would try to see how things could be a little easier. Maybe if someone was wheelchair bound, things would have been very difficult. But I think we have come a long way since then.
7. While demanding reasonable accommodation, a key factor is your own academic performance and your own ability to thrive in the environment where you are studying. So, for instance if you are someone who is average, it is much harder for you to get your needs met than it is for someone who is at the top of their class. Is that something you agree with?
I think so. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my academics have been pretty sound. But that in no way should be a criterion for any sort of platform to make life easy for you. In the sense, merit is not a prerequisite for you to have a right to live.
You don’t ask others, who are not battling a disability, what their marks are to be able to give them a right to walk on the road, to be able to give them a right to take a plane, to take a bus. Merit plays a huge role in terms of people having a certain bias towards you – for or against, and I think that should never be the norm.
8. As you said, there is a need for the government to spearhead the change in mindset that we seek. Recently, there was an accessibility audit conducted of all public buildings in India and that audit showed that not a single building in the whole country is completely accessible based on the parameters that they had used. What in your view is the key reason why this is the case and how might we be able to change that?
We have a very conservative and condescending view of the differently abled in the country. The government is very apathetic towards them. It is not inclusive; the attitude is very exclusive. So, when exclusion governs you, you will make no effort to make sure that a chunk of your population is accommodated. Also, I personally feel that this chunk of the population really doesn’t matter much in terms of the vote politics of India. So, when you do not consider something to contribute to your rise to power, you will not make a vice-versa contribution for their betterment and welfare. I think the most regressive area after 60 odd years of independence has been the empowerment of people who are differently abled. We completely lag behind. There is absolutely no sensitization, there is absolutely no awareness, and empowerment is a far-fetched goal.
9. Before giving the civil services exam, you worked at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and you continued to work there after the exam as well. What were the reasonable accommodations that they provided you and how was your experience there more broadly?
I think Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas has probably been the best experience of my life. My disability never came in the way of my merit. Secondly, they have ramps and elevators everywhere. So, a wheelchair can be easily accommodated and they ensure that there is absolutely minimal walking for you. They never stopped me from travelling to meetings to clients’ offices outside the city. It was equal opportunity in the true sense of the term at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas. I would say that Shardul Shroff and Pallavi Shroff always played a central role in ensuring that I’m at par with everyone else. I don’t think they remember sometimes that I have a problem because they treat me so normally. Kudos to them! I don’t think I would have reached the level I have without the tremendous support of the Shroffs. This firm has been very sensitive to my needs. When I fell ill, when I had a back problem and was advised bed rest, they gave me three months off and they didn’t cut my salary. I think it is very rare for an employer to show such kind of sensitivity. In terms of thought and sensitivity, in terms of concern, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas has been really tremendous.
10. It is quite important for people in positions of power in law firms and other places in the legal profession to intervene in order for you to be able to thrive at the workplace.To what extent do you think it is important for a student with a disability to solicit the support of people who are at the top of the ladder when they join an institution in order to ensure that their needs are met?
I think every organization, not only law firms,but even corporates, companies, NGOs, government organizations, every workplace, must have stringent laws and defined policies just the way we have stringent laws and policies for women and sexual harassment at workplace. We need to have defined policies in place for every working organization which basically puts in place a very strict procedure, that unless merit is a problem, no differently abled should be given any lesser opportunity than someone else.
There has to be a very strict mandate which has to come from the top and when that mandate is in place, the players in the organization will behave themselves. The problem occurs when there is no clear mandate. Most people don’t even know how to react to an application from a differently abled person. They don’t even ask the right questions, forget about understanding the disability. The reaction is more of shock than of understanding. So, when your reactions are so knee-jerk, there is very little thought that you are going to put into accommodation or opportunities for people with disabilities.There has to be a very clear mandate. Just the way we have a mandate in an organization for key performers. This needs to be a very core area that needs to be addressed and you cannot brush it under the carpet any longer.
Processes should be institutionalized. Unfortunately, India is lacking in standard operation procedures. We need to have certain of them in place. Ad hoc intervention also has to do with one’s personality. You may not be someone who is very confident and proactive. There is a lot of fear factor on how a senior might take it. There are lots of inhibitions and there are lots of other factors that play in your mind when you seek intervention. But when there is an institutionalized process, this becomes easy on both parties.
11. You gave the civil services exam in 2012. There were a lot of complications as you weren’t getting posted in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), which you wanted and that resulted in the litigation which finally recognized your right to be given a reserved post in the IFS. You spoke about this to some extent more generally, but in the specific case, what exactly led to the litigation that finally recognized your rights?
The Department of Personnel and Training is the department which allocates your service. The way the whole process of this examination works is that the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) conducts the exam and once you have cleared the exam, they recommend the selected candidates to the Department of Personnel and Training and the Department of Personnel and Training allocates you a service as per your ranking and preference. When you see the notification of the civil services exam, you are made to believe that there are about 25-26 services and there is column next to them which specifies the disabilities which are eligible to give this exam.
What happened was here was I filled only 8 preferences as I was very clear that I only wanted to get into the IAS or the foreign service, I didn’t want to do anything else as it was a huge trade off against my corporate job. When I saw the allocation list, I was a bit shocked to see that I was 769 but people at 930 and 846 were sitting with IAS and foreign service. I was a bit shocked and wondered why this was there. They had a hearing disability but in merit there was a huge difference, almost 200 rankings. I went to the Department of Personnel and Training and asked them for an answer.
Firstly, the whole process is very opaque. Vacancies are never advertised to you. You don’t know which disability will be eligible for what service prior to giving the exam. You don’t even know it till after the result is out and after the allocation is made. We only got to know about this in the court when we asked for the records and they were all over the place. There is a very poor management of records and the whole allocation of service is very opaquely done, so one doesn’t really know what goes into it. It is a man-made exercise; it is not a computerized exercise. It is the only leg of civil services which is not computerized.
I was told by this gentleman that because I have a disability in both my legs, I’m ineligible and that argument sounded completely out of place. Because there was also a prior case of this wonderful lady called Manjushree who is a Karnataka cadre IAS officer. She had in 2009 or 2008 qualified the IAS and was not given the IAS because they said you have a problem in both your legs. And the Central Administrative Tribunal there held that it is an absolutely misplaced argument. The UPSC notification clearly expects you to satisfy certain functions that you can discharge and if you are able to discharge those functions, whether your disability is in one or two legs, doesn’t really matter and it shouldn’t be a hindrance because that is a very arbitrary and baseless criterion.
He was very categorical in saying that we are very clear that we are not going to let you join as you have a disability in both your legs, so why don’t you go to court and seek remedy. We went to court on three prong arbitrariness: 1. First, the both leg argument is totally misplaced 2. Vacancies and identification of seats for the differently abled is never disclosed to them; 3. How is it that your horizontal reservation is so flawed that you end up having people much lower in the ranking list or probably last in the ranking list with a service much better than people somewhere in the middle of the list?
I felt very shortchanged to be very honest. I cleared the exam and it was unpalatable that someone below me was sitting with a better service and how could they not allow me to join the services when I could perform all the functions that were required for the job.
12. In recent times, we have had a number of progressive judgments on the issue of reservation in particular and also on the rights of the disabled in general. We are more specifically referring to the 2013 NFB judgement which recognized that reservation of 3 per cent seats has to be not against identified posts but against total cadre and also the recent Jeeja Ghosh judgment delivered by Justice Sikri in which he waxes eloquent about the need to protect the rights of disabled and quotes Hellen Keller, etc. On one hand you have these progressive judicial pronouncements and on the other hand, we have instances such as yours, in which despite possessing the capability and merit and having cleared the exam with rank 769, you didn’t get the post that you wanted to get and such arbitrary arguments were being put forth. In your view, what exactly is the reason why the benevolence that underpins these judgments gets lost in translation?
Honestly, we are looking at half the picture. I don’t think we can generalize that the whole of judiciary shares this progressive mindset. Because very few exceptions have been outstanding judgments. In my own case, my matter has been in the High Court for two years and one year in CAT and it took Justice Sanjiv Khanna and Justice Waziri to deliver the judgment that they have with utmost sensitivity. But before that we went through so many judges and not one thought that they would want to interfere with the government process or they would be bold enough to spell out what the law is and what the intent of the disability act is. So, my point is that there are very few individuals and it has nothing to do with the judiciary or it has to do with the government. It is absolutely again a very individual mindset. It is not institutions; it is not this leg of the government or this leg of the judiciary that is more sensitive than the legislature or the executive. I won’t generalize. I would say that even the judiciary is partly sensitive. You need to expedite matters for people who are differently abled. For example, in 2015, we didn’t move an inch on our judgment. From one day to the other, must have had atleast 8-9 hearings in the whole year. Not even a slightly significant movement in our favour. And when Justice Khanna and Justice Waziri came, they wrapped up the matter within three–three and half months.
Differently abled persons are not a priority in this country and this is a fundamental issue that seeps into every area of society. It is really about individual charity and individual niceness and I’m using the word “charity” very purposely because I feel that that’s what people think that they are doing, they are giving us charity, it is not a right or an entitlement.
13. Prime Minister Modi launched the Accessible India campaign last year with much pomp and fanfare. He likes to call persons with disabilities ‘divyang’ which means “divine bodies”. Do you think that engaging in debates which have more to do with rhetoric and semantics than with substance and meaningful change is really going to get us anywhere?
Of course not, it is a very patronizing and is a concessional gimmick. They don’t really address the issues at all. The issue has to be addressed at the root. There is a reason why if there is a Dadri lynching that happens, the whole media and the whole world writes about it. But if a differently abled on a wheelchair is thrown out of a flight, it doesn’t stir the conscious of any author or any academic.
14. Does the Accessible India campaign hold any potential of changing any of this?
Everything has to translate in reality. Enforcement is the weakest leg in this country. You may have all you want on paper (anyway we don’t even have much on paper). Article 14 and Article 21 really haven’t been given meaning in terms of the lives of the differently abled.
Ad hoc attention and ad hoc gimmicks are not addressing the root of the problem.
There is a mindlessness as to how one approaches disability in this country. There is no coherent cohesive process. It is very isolated. There is no attempt to look at it holistically and make it a more meaningful process. I just think that Accessible India is great for Mr. Modi to boast about as he is definitely a step ahead as he wants to think about accessible India. I’d say that, for others, it didn’t even cross their minds for so many years when they governed the country.
15. Some employers are of the view that those who are disabled are better off doing a desk job as opposed to working in a litigation oriented firm as that is much more fast paced. What do you do when someone higher up in the organization has that kind of a mindset?
We need more people like Shardul Shroff and Pallavi Shroff. We need employers who are at the top and do not think that they are risking anything when they put people like me on the stage to go perform. They send me for every possible client meeting. I don’t think it ever played on their mind that I should not be sent to any meetings. My immediate bosses, Gunjan Shah and Purva Chadha, they made me work probably harder than my peers. Because it was never a concession, it was never a disability, and there were no limitations really attached to it.
All questions boil down to one thing: unfortunately, disability in India is a very sidelined issue. There is a certain taboo they attach to it. The day you include it in mainstream discussion and discourse, you will see employers shift their perspectives. It is unfortunate that sometimes people have to pay for no fault of theirs.
It is unfortunate that disability is left at the mercy of a few good men. And till a time that few good men like Shamnad Basheer who is taking this up or my employer, Shardul Shroff are there, it is again going to be a very ad hoc/one-off approach. There has to be a transformation in society to take this issue to bring it into mainstream discourse. It needs attention and not once a year when you celebrate the disability day, but it needs attention throughout the years, on all days.
16. What are the special factors that a student with a disability should be cognizant of while choosing their employment over and above the factors of employment everyone else has to consider?
I honestly discourage an approach like this because if you start limiting your choices they will get further narrowed down. I never thought about my life like that despite whatever difficulties and problems I faced and I would not advise anyone to be restrictive in their approach. The problem is that we need to stop being restrictive in the options that we have for ourselves. When we go out and work in multi-nationals, banks, law firms, courts, in numerous numbers, we will be living examples of our ability and merit. We need to really push ourselves to get the best. Rather than letting the barrier free environment or the accommodative organization be a determinant factor. Let me put it this way – it definitely plays a huge role but I would say that if you restrict yourself in the beginning, I feel that we limit ourselves in thinking that this may not be an advisable profession because I may not be able to perform. That I need to get strength and that I will be able to perform and hopefully, I will be able to convince people who help me. It is a more idealistic way and a more optimistic way to think but I’d like to think like that. I really would not recommend anyone to choose a profession over the other because of their disability. Of course there is a huge advantage if you are working abroad, if you are studying abroad. Simply because, they unlike India are mindful of your needs. Every step whether it is a supermarket or a historical monument, more or less, they have tried to accommodate and create a barrier free environment but it’s a long way again. It’s not like just because it is America or just because it is Italy it is better. I can tell you, I went to Italy last year for a holiday. I went to the Colosseum. It terms of infrastructure they didn’t even have a wheelchair which they could give me to see the place. As a result, I could only see a bit of it, I had to sit somewhere and come back home. My point is that we are anyway struggling a lot to overcome something which is not in our hands. We shouldn’t burden our minds too. Rather we should burden the people who are responsible to do something for us. Because it is not charity like I said.
Definitely a dose of pragmatism has to be there. If I’m orthopedically challenged, I’m not going to apply for police services or army but there are 100 other better options. So, my optimism does not get lost in pragmatism because there are 100 other better options as well. My point is that the minute those remaining fifty options are more accessible to you by the institutions responsible for them, things would change for you. It is not really in our hands; it is their hands. The ball is not really in our court but the ball is in their court. That is the difference I’m trying to show. They are anyway dealing with a lot and you burden them with restrictive options, I don’t know where we are heading towards honestly, it is a big question mark.
The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read our other interviews here.