Her world may be a bit complicated but Ira Singhal, 32, knows how to make things simple. Suffering from scoliosis (an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine), with 62% locomotor disability, her height has been compromised and she is not able to fully twist her arms.
But underrate her at your own peril. She can walk fast, play table tennis, loves to dance, is a good actor and choreographer, has directed plays and is also a great cook. “There are very few things I cannot do,” she says with an infectious smile.
And of course she knows how to fight big battles. Against all odds. And top the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), one of the toughest competitive exams in the country (this year four of the five toppers were women). “As a kid I dreamt of only two things — either become an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer or a doctor,” says Ira who is an engineer and an MBA and quit a promising corporate career to join the government.
Her big UPSC success is a story of both travails and triumphs — not just for her but many UPSC aspirants who suffer from a range of disabilities. Since the results, she has been flooded with invites to a range of schools, colleges and institutes, and has given over 100 speeches so far. “My message basically is stop seeing the negative in you. Don’t let the world tell you what you can or can’t do. It is you who decides,” says Ira. She admits that many who are disabled and their parents have found a new confidence seeing her success. “Some are willing to believe in themselves. And it makes me feel good,” she says.
Now, as the government considers making her the brand ambassador for the department of empowerment of persons with disabilities, Ira could play a key role in making the government a little more tolerant and sensitive about the disabled in the country.
Abling the Disabled
when she first appeared for the exam. She quit her cushy, well-paying two-year-old job at Cadbury India (now Mondelez India) in Mumbai to prepare for the UPSC. Keen to retain her, Cadbury offered everything it possibly could — from a generous salary to ample leave to an extended sabbatical.
“But I realised this was not what I wanted to do in life. I have never been motivated by money. I wanted to help the world,” she says.
With a strong resolve, Ira appeared for the UPSC in 2010. Her rank made her eligible to get into the Customs and Central Excise Service cadre. But her file, first on hold, was rejected. “Because my disability did not fit into any of the disability categories on their list,” she explains.
Ira filed a lawsuit in the Central Administrative Tribunal. “She had no dearth of jobs in the private sector. But, I felt injustice was being done and we had to fight it,” says her father Rajendra Singhal, a consultant in the insurance sector. It was a violation of the Persons with Disabilities Act (PWD) Articles 14 and 16. “My dad is big on fighting for justice,” says Ira.
Also, the Singhals felt they had to fight for other disabled candidates. “We could fight. We had the funds and the patience. But not everybody can,” says Singhal senior.
Her legal battle continued even as she appeared for the UPSC exams in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Each time she hoped to improve her ranks and get picked for a cadre where her disability was not a hurdle. With little luck. Finally, she won the case in 2014 when she was inducted as assistant commissioner in the Customs and Central Excise Service. And just when she was settling down with the win, she was declared the UPSC topper early this year.
There are many reasons why her success is being cheered. It shines the spotlight on challenges that candidates with disabilities face in the government. According to media reports, between 2005 and 2014, there were 245 cases of disabled candidates clearing the UPSC exam. Of them, 121 had locomotor disability, 79 hearing problems and 45 visual disability.
Many of them have had to fight a long court battle, like Ira, to get their due. For example, according to media reports, in 2000, Manoj Sadasivan, a hearing impaired candidate who qualified was denied any service due to his disability. Ravi Kumar Arora, with poor vision, qualified in 2001 but was rejected.
Finally, after a court battle and after clearing the IAS he got the job. Similarly, polio-affected Avikal Manu was selected in 2004 but declared ineligible. Finally, when he cleared the exam again in 2006, the court and the prime minister intervened to help him join the IRS (Indian Revenue service).
A Shining Example
Ira’s court win — and her stellar success in UPSC exam — has brought fresh hope to many disabled, especially the UPSC aspirants. “My father taught me to never allow anyone to take pity on you,” she says. Singhal senior admits that being the head of a joint family he did not allow Ira any concession and was tough on her, far tougher than other children in the family. “I knew she had to fight far bigger battles in life. And she had to be tough and resilient,” he says.
For the disabled, even simple things can be unsettling. Initially, Ira would feel a bit odd getting those occasional stares from strangers while walking on the street. “I have learnt not to react. Just give them a smile back and may be say ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’. That works beautifully,” she says.
She says everybody is different and has their strengths and weaknesses. “We just need to focus on our strengths instead of our weaknesses.”
As Ira prepares to join the government, what is visibly clear is that she comes with a big agenda. Ask her what will differentiate her as a bureaucrat and pat comes the reply: “How the world judges me is not important at all. It never was. What I know is I want to help others. And I am not here for myself.”
Publication Date in Economic Times E-Paper : 27 Dec, 2015, 0458 hrs IST.
Credit : Malini Goyal, ET Bureau