‘State scheme for PwDs should be consistent’

Elkin Rynniaw is 31 years old. He is blind in one eye and has only 40 per cent vision in the other. A boarder of Bethany Society in the city, Rynniaw did not have a childhood that one is expected to have. However, torture and humiliation have only made him stronger to fight for the cause of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs). He is now the president of Meghalaya Liberation Association of Visually Impaired, or MLAVI.
Rynniaw was born in the remote village of Porla in West Khasi Hills. When he was only six, his mother died and father left the five siblings to marry again. With no adult earning member in the family, the children lived in penury and “at times we had to go hungry the whole day”. Rynniaw’s elder brothers did petty jobs to run the family. But none of the siblings was friendly with Rynniaw and often hit him. “Once they poked my eye with a twig and it started bleeding.”
“The villagers knew about this and one day, a lady from the local Presbyterian church came to our house and took me along,” said Rynniaw who works at Bethany Society.
An expert farmer now, Rynniaw’s travails did not end. Though he got a house to stay in and started going to school, his eyes continued to give trouble. One day, while in school Rynniaw’s eyes got swollen and “it felt like someone has put chilly powder into my eyes”. He went to Bansara Eye Clinic for check-up and came to know about Bethany Society. Rynniaw was around 14 years old when he came to stay in the society boarding house. “I was already old then and found it difficult to get admission in the inclusive school here as I was told that I would not be able to catch up with the Braille class. But I was determined to finish my education and I told the authority here that if I cannot study I would not stay here,” Rynniaw recollected.
With much difficulty but determination Rynniaw finished Class IV with first division marks. Rynniaw studies Philosophy at St Anthony’s College. Rynniaw has his own working space at Bethany. He grows vegetables, makes vermicompost and experiments with various farming techniques. The farm produce and the manure are sold.
In an interview with The Shillong Times, the gritty young man talks about his past and present and what he wants to achieve. Excerpts:

Is there any cure for your eyes?
When I was in Class V, a philanthropist from Spain had visited Bethany with the intention to help poor children. It was 2002. He had taken me to a hospital in Guwahati where my right eye was operated. Thank god for him that I have some vision left in this eye. For the other eye, I went to Civil Hospital and now it is completely gone. I go for check-ups but I do not think there is proper treatment here.

What are you studying now? What do you wish to do after this?
After completing my matriculation in 2007, I had joined Shillong College with Economics, Statistics, Elective Khasi and English. However, due to acute financial problem I could not continue and I had to quit studies for five to six years. Now I am a student of fourth semester at St Anthony’s College.
I want to finish my studies so that I have an independent life.

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For how long have you been the member of MLAVI? What prompted you to join/form the group?
MLAVI is the rechristened version of Association of Challenged people. It was formed in 2014 and currently has 15 members. I wanted to be a part of the organisation so that I can give voice to the problems of PwDs. I resigned from MLAVI in 2014 but rejoined two years later. Now I am the state president and have many responsibilities.

What are the objectives of MLAVI?
As the president (Rynniaw is also the state-level president of the All Meghalaya Association of People with Disabilities), I want to first build the financial structure of the organisation. We did not have funds but I, along with my team, am working towards making it sustainable.
I work with rural technology and I am an expert in organic farming using innovative ways which may help PwDs. I am also a livelihood trainer. So I am trying to use these skills to bring about a change. Recently, I trained a group at Nongrah village in raised bed gardening. Raised bed gardening or farming is my brainchild and this will help even a person on wheelchair to farm without any physical trouble.
But you have to understand that only training will not help if it is not implemented. So I follow up after every training session and encourage trainees to continue with the work. This way, one day a cycle will be formed and sustainability will be achieved. As the main resource person, I have written down the action plan for this programme.
We all have access to internet. So my first aim is to contact PwD friends on social network and find out their problems. Then the focus will be on livelihood, which is the bigger plan.

What do you think is lacking in the state for PwDs?
Well, many things. For two and a half years, no money is coming from the Chief Minister’s Scheme. The government has changed but that does not mean that the scheme will be discontinued. In fact, the new chief minister should prove himself better than his predecessor by ensuring proper implementation of the scheme. Also, the money paid (Rs 500) is meagre. For the last 15 years, the amount has remained the same when everything else around us has changed. So the government should consider raising the amount.
There are other problems too that PwDs face in Meghalaya. There is social discrimination and verbal abuse. The word anna in Khasi is a derogatory word used for PwDs.
You see, all PwDs need some mental support and such treatment by the society often breaks our confidence for life. So this mindset has to change and we are working towards that by spreading awareness.
There are other problems like sexual harassment of the mentally and the physically challenged and justice often eludes such victims because they cannot speak out.
The biggest problem, I feel, is poverty. That too needs to be eradicated.

What are your demands?
We want our rights, which include right to live with dignity. The government has rules and laws in paper but they need to be implemented in letter and spirit.
Also, as I said earlier, the CM scheme should be consistent and the amount should be increased. The world is dynamic and prices are increasing. Do you think Rs 500 a month, that too irregularly, is enough?

What are your other interests?
I am very much interested in farming. Nature has been my teacher and from childhood I have been doing farming. So I know everything about soil and seeds and crops. I cannot study for long and definitely not after dark. So I cannot read much beyond the books in syllabus.

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