PU launches formal equal opportunity cell for the disabled

PANJAB UNIVERSITY has finally launched a formal equal opportunity cell for people with disabilities (EOC-PwD) on the lines of the SC/ST Cell. Students said they have been struggling for the past two years to get the cell established as it exists in other top universities such as Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. According to the University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines, all universities and colleges should form an equal opportunity cell for SC, ST, OBC and PWD students. While the SC/ST Cell is already functioning at PU, there was only an informal arrangement for disabled students under the department of lifelong learning. Now, the varsity will route all its plans for disabled students through a three-member core committee, including the EOC-PwD coordinator, and a six-member student executive body.

The cell was formed on April 3 after some PWD students and professors met the authorities to discuss issues related to PWD students in the university. The Registrar, Dean, University Instructions (DUI), Dean, Students’ Welfare (DSW), SC/ST Cell Coordinator, Chairperson of the Department of Lifelong Learning, Chief Architect and a representative of the computer centre were present during the meeting. The university has set up an online portal eocpwd.puchd.ac.in that will soon be updated with all the information on PWD students and schemes available for them. The cell is located adjacent to the SC/ST Cell in Aruna Ranjit Chandra Hall.

“The authorities had already decided to launch the cell in December 2017. They informally appointed me in January, but now it has been set up properly,” said Prof Sanjeev Gautam, Coordinator, EOC-PwD. He added that his first step was to collect data on all the disabled students from all the departments as there were 70 to 80 of them studying in the university. “A proforma has been uploaded on the web portal where heads have to provide details of disabled students in their departments. This data will also be used to issue identity cards for free e-rickshaw services. The last date for submission is April 24,” he said.

The university has planned to make e-rickshaws free for differently-abled students on the campus. The Chief Medical Officer will certify the disability and issue cards for availing the facility. Earlier, the service was free only for disabled students of economically weaker section (EWS). While the Panjab University Campus Students’ Council (PUCSC) has repeatedly submitted representations to the DSW to construct ramps and make e-rickshaws free, PWD students said it was only after the formation of the cell that the work on both the projects started in the university. Now Karanbir Singh Randhawa, Joint Secretary of PUCSC, has submitted a representation demanding special walking sticks for visually impaired students and 24×7 helpline during examination.

“The DUI held a meeting with us on January 18 where we submitted an application for a separate cell. An informal cell was formed in October 2016, but that did not comply with the UGC guidelines,” said Dheeraj Ahuja, a PhD scholar who is a member of the student executive body of the EOC-PwD. Students said the former set-up did not have basic facilities such as its own office and staff, a PWD coordinator and an executive body that could raise issues being faced by PWD students.

Rimpi Arora, a PhD scholar and student executive member, said PU was 90 per cent inaccessible for disabled students. While the construction of ramps has already started in areas near the Student Centre and AC Joshi Library, students said it was not enough.

“We need tactile blocks for visually-impaired students and railings for support along these ramps. Free e-rickshaw services are fine, but none of it will make sense if the campus is not made more accessible. Girls’ hostels still have ramps and lifts, but boys’ hostels are in a pathetic state,” said a visually impaired student Manish Chauhan, also a student executive member.

Another student executive member, Shubham Sharma, said some of them did not even want free commuting services if the campus was 100 per cent accessible. But, he added, providing these services was necessary as movement will become impossible otherwise. The authorities said the foremost priority is to make the campus more accessible. The university has prepared plans to make hostels and social spaces more disabled-friendly on the ground level. “We’re first looking at accessibility under which the new buildings already have all the facilities. For older buildings, the chief architect has formed plans to make them accessible. We have also appointed the deputy registrar to coordinate with the cell for better functioning. Right now, we’re spending our own money, but in time we will also look into proper allocation of funds,” said Col G S Chadha (retd), Registrar, PU. Prof Gautam said it was great that the university had opened a proper channel of communication with PWD students to address long-standing issues.

“While I don’t deny the role of the student council in raising issues faced by disabled students, these can now be highlighted through a formal platform. Our PWD students have worked hard to sustain themselves on the campus even without facilities and have constantly stood up for their rights,” he added.