There are no words written on the pages in front of him. At least, none that can be spotted at first glance. Sitting behind his desk, Senior Advocate Santosh Kumar Rungta is running his fingers over the Braille inscribed pages with just a hint of a smile on his face. The 59-year old Senior Advocate has reason enough to be happy.
On October 8, 2013, the Supreme Court directed the government to implement a 3 per cent reservation for differently-abled persons in government jobs. This judgment (full text available below) was, in many ways, a vindication of Rungta’s efforts, who has been fighting a battle for the differently abled for the last three decades.
On the verdict itself, Rungta said, “I think I have been able to succeed in getting the rightful claim for differently-abled persons” and that the judgment provides for, “some relief in our long struggle that we have to undertake for the rights of the disabled”.
This is not the first time Rungta has fought for, and won, relief for the differently abled. It was his petition in 1993, that resulted in the Supreme Court allowing visually handicapped (blind and partially-blind) candidates to write the civil examination in Braille-script or with the help of a Scribe.
Rungta was born with leukemia, losing his sight when he was barely one and a half years old. But his blindness never stopped him from pursuing his goals. Graduating from the University of Kanpur, he joined the National Federation of Blind and was made Secretary General in 1978. At the same time, he also pursued an LL.M from the University of Delhi, eventually enrolling at the Delhi Bar in 1982.
Over the last three decades, Rungta has largely focused on protecting the rights of people with disabilities, work that is mostly done pro bono. He specializes in civil laws and Constitutional matters.
In 2011, the Delhi High Court made him a Senior Advocate, the first blind lawyer to receive this designation. Over a meeting that spanned over one hour, this passionate and courageous man talks about his decision to take up legal profession as a career, initial challenges and his struggle for the employment rights of blind people.
(Excerpts from the interview)
B&B: What prompted you to take up legal profession? When did you make the decision?
Rungta: Since my childhood, I used to think about what profession would be ideal for me and about the challenges that I would have to encounter owing to my blindness. So when I was in class four, I decided that I will pursue legal profession as my career; and from then on, I started preparing myself.
Taking that decision at such an early stage probably afforded me an opportunity to mould my abilities and skills accordingly. The decision to pursue this career was also, I would say, a reaction to the kind of negative perception people have about the abilities of the blind and their utility in the society. I have witnessed this perception throughout my childhood. Within the family too, my brothers and sisters were treated as potential contributors while I was considered a liability to all the other siblings. So, I decided I must fight such kind of discrimination.
B&B: Your decision to move to Delhi.
Rungta: I belong to Kanpur. I did law from Kanpur University then came to Delhi and I did my LL.M. from Delhi University before joining the profession. I became the Secretary General of National Federation of Blind (Federation) which is the apex organization fighting for the rights of the blind. Since the Head Office of the Federation was in Delhi, I had to come here. So it was in fact a coincidence that I ultimately settled here and enrolled myself as a lawyer after completing my LLM.
For 4 years I mostly did my Federation work, fighting for legislation on the rights of persons with disabilities in general and the blind in particular as well as for their employment opportunities. Ultimately, I enrolled at the Bar in 1982 and started practicing.
B&B: Initial challenges?
Rungta: The first and foremost challenge, which probably every advocate faces, is to create confidence in potential clients. But for me it was an additional challenge because of my blindness.
But I was lucky that I got empanelled on the “gaon sabha” cases under Delhi Land Reform Act with the help of the then Delhi Development Commissioner, S.C. Vajpayee. This was in 1982. So I was one of the panel counsels and the first task given to me was a very challenging case in the Delhi High Court. This was a case in which 7 Harijans were given agricultural land under a governmental program but the land had been encroached by Zamindars. So the Harijans did not get the physical possession of the land and what they had was a piece of paper in the form of Certificate of Allotment. The matter was already in the High Court when I was handed over the matter. I was pitted against RK Anand who was representing the Zamindars.
So my maiden appearance was in the Delhi High Court and I managed to get interim relief; the Court directed the revenue officers to go to the spot and deliver the physical possession [of the land] to the Harijans. I eventually won the case on technical points and that case became a precedent under the Delhi Land Reforms Act. It was widely publicized and that is how I was able to establish my credibility and demonstrate some kind of capability and competence.
B&B: Any other challenges with the Bar and the Bench?
Rungta: With the Bench, I did not face many problems except for one or two incidents in the initial years. When I was appearing in one of the lower courts, a judge started questioning me on my competence to sign the vakalatnama and pleadings.
The dispute related to a dead man’s will in which the beneficiary and the attesting witness were all visually challenged. The judge refused to admit the attestation by a visually challenged witness. But I argued that the law didn’t disqualify a blind person from being a witness. I further argued that there was no provision in the Indian Advocates Act prohibiting a blind individual to be enrolled as an advocate.
Fortunately, my client was also very assertive. He too started questioning the judge, “Will you dictate me as to whom I should hire, and can you question my hiring a particular counsel”. So that matter got sorted out then and there.
There were also very pleasant experiences also on this aspect. Once I was appearing before Justice J.K. Mehra in the Delhi High Court. The counsel representing the other party was giving me a copy of his counter affidavit before the Court. My clerk, who was signing a token of receipt of the copy, was stopped by Justice J.K.Mehra who proceeded to ask the opposite party counsel, “Have you brought a copy in braille, if not Mr. Rungta will not receive it”. That is the other side; so I have had both, bitter and pleasant experiences at the Bar.
B&B: This perception must have changed with time. You were designated a Senior Advocate in 2011.
Rungta: The perception has now changed very drastically. When I was designated Senior, the judges told me that I polled 100% which has rarely happened.
Personally, I thought that this is probably another contribution towards upholding the dignity of the blind community. Through my performance I was able to create some kind of perception that blindness is no bar to compete and perform. I would cherish it as the single most important achievement of my life.
B&B: As the General Secretary of the National Federation of Blind, you were leading the fight for the employment rights of blind people in India. Can you talk about that?
Rungta: I joined this Federation and took over as a Secretary General in 1978. The sole objective at that time was to open employment for the blind, to create a recognition for the rights of the disabled in general and the blind in particular and to fight for right to equality in all walks of life. With that in mind, I started advocating for a comprehensive reservation policy in government employment for the disabled including the blind. That is how we got the 3 per cent reservation in favour of disabled persons in Group C & D posts.
This was introduced in 1977-78 but was not implemented. From time to time we had to make representations and approach the courts. In 1980, we started lobbying for a comprehensive legislation for the protection of life of persons with disability and the government finally accepted this demand on May 15, 1980. But our struggle continued for another 15 years, ultimately resulting in the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. Now, Section 33 of the Act provided for reservation of 3 per cent posts in all government establishments to the extent of 1 per cent each for the persons suffering from (i) blindness or low vision; (ii) hearing impairment; and (iii) locomotor disability or cerebral palsy. After the enactment of the said Act, the Government issued various orders for ensuring the proper implementation of the provisions of the Act for the persons with disabilities.
Even after this Act though, the Government was reluctant to implement it and we organized various agitations seeking the implementation of the Act. Finally, we approached the Delhi High Court in 2006 seeking the implementation of Section 33. I argued that Section 33 should be properly interpreted to mean that 3 per cent reservation is against the vacancies in total vacancies in cadre strength in an establishment and not against the vacancies in the post identified for persons with disabilities only. The High Court accepted our interpretation [of Section 33] and said that the minimum level of representation of 3 per cent which is mandated in every Government establishment will have to be computed for group ‘A’ to ‘D’ against the total vacancies in the cadre strength and not against the vacancies in identified posts.
B&B: Your battle did not end there. The Government challenged this order of the High Court in the Apex court, which you finally won last week.
Rungta: The Government challenged the finding of the High Court that in terms of Section 33 of the Act, 3 per cent reservation for the disabled persons has to be computed on the basis of total strength of the cadre, i.e., both identified as well as unidentified posts.
The government came up with several arguments and one of the arguments of the government was that a 3 per cent quota for the disabled would violate the 50% ceiling that exists for the weaker sections of society. The Supreme Court rejected this argument.
The Bench said that computation of reservation for disabled persons has to be done in case of posts falling under all Groups from A, B, C and D in an identical manner viz. “computing 3 per cent reservation on the total number of vacancies in the cadre strength”. The Court directed the Centre and the State governments to compute the posts within 3 months.
B&B: What will be the impact of this judgment?
Rungta: If we compute in the manner in which the Supreme Court has directed and take into account the time frame which the Supreme Court has given, – the number of vacancies that would be required to be filled up as backlog vacancies would be tripled. I am estimating that if I take into account the Central government, the State governments and Union Territories, we may get somewhere around 30,000 backlog vacancies for all the disabled.
B&B: I don’t know how many law books are available in Braille/audio recordings. How do you overcome this and how do you manage with briefs that you get?
Rungta: Law books are not available in Braille. However, with the advancement in information technology, everything, which is on screen or in the memory of the computer, is accessible to us, either in the form of voice or in the form of braille displays. There are braille displays attached to the computer, which are as good as having a braille book. Screen reader software is also available. I accept briefs in electronic form. So that is not a problem now.
It was a big problem when I started my career. Earlier, I used to prepare a short braille note for every case and many times I used to take the help of my staff for reading the journals and getting them recorded so that as and when I want something I could refer back.
B&B: How do you handle clients?
Rungta: Since I have become a Senior, clients don’t come directly to me. But before I was designated a Senior, I never used juniors to prepare the brief even though I had juniors. I have always preferred to have direct interaction with the client so that I have something in my memory about the case. Even now, when an advocate comes to brief me, I would ask the advocate to bring the client along with him for the next conference for which I do not charge. I always prefer to have at least one conference with the client and advocate together because it may happen that the briefing counsel would not have seen the case from that perspective from which I look at it. So it is always advisable to hear the client as well.
B&B: Any mentor or guide?
Rungta: Not really. I started with the ‘trial and error method’. When I started my career, I used to go to the filing counter with my clerk so that I acquaint myself with every small procedure involved in this practice. This profession is for people who have a lot of patience because you must be ready to face economic crises for at least the first 5 years. That has been the general experience of the people and I also feel that way when I look back.
B&B: Do you have a few trusted people around you who help you with your daily tasks?
Rungta: That is the mystery to my success. You would be surprised that I have the same driver whom I hired when I purchased my first car way back in 1989 and the same clerk who was hired in 1990. My staff has not changed.
B&B: Any concluding thoughts?
Rungta: This is a very dignified profession and the lawyers are the custodian of the interests of clients. They must not breach the trust of client. One must fight against the circumstances and that is the principle on which I live.