‘Equalizing the differently abled with their peers itself infracts Article 14’; Delhi High Court upholds Rights of visually disabled student for hostel accommodation at JNU

Delhi High Court

Delhi High Court: A petition was filed by the petitioner, a 100% visually disabled student, pursuing his M.A. in Sociology in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) challenging non-allotment of hostel since the time he was admitted to the M.A. course on 23-11-2022. C Hari Shankar, J., held that the petitioner, as a differently abled individual, was entitled to hostel accommodation provided by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) within its campus, free of cost. The Court directed JNU to provide all necessary facilities to the petitioner, including hostel accommodation and any other entitlements afforded to differently abled students, until the completion of the petitioner’s Master’s degree course in Sociology.

The petitioner embarked on their academic journey at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in August 2017, enrolling in a combined five-year B.A.-M.A. program in German. However, their tenure in the program was cut short when they left midway in November 2020, having completed three years and consequently being awarded a B.A. degree in German. Subsequently, in December 2020, the petitioner was admitted to the M.A. program in Political Science with a specialization in International Studies (M.A. PISM), amid the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which they were permitted to retain their hostel accommodation. Despite this concession, in August 2021, while still pursuing the M.A. (PISM) course, the petitioner was allocated a room in the Sabarmati Hostel, designated for students with physical disabilities. However, they continued to occupy their previous room in the Kaveri Hostel, despite receiving a directive on 15-09-2021 to shift to the Sabarmati Hostel due to their allocation. This directive was disregarded, leading to the petitioner’s eviction from the Kaveri Hostel on 03-11-2022.

Following this, the petitioner was admitted to another program, an M.A. in Sociology, in November 2022. Despite making requests for hostel accommodation, none was granted them this time. In response to the denial of hostel accommodation, the petitioner filed a complaint with the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPWD), citing a violation of their rights under the Right of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWD Act). The JNU’s response to this complaint cited provisions from the JNU Hostel Manual, contending that the petitioner, pursuing a second Master’s level course, was not entitled to hostel accommodation under its regulations. Despite the lack of a favorable outcome from the complaint filed with the CCPWD, the petitioner approached the court with a writ petition seeking various reliefs, including hostel accommodation, revision of hostel manual rules, and compensation for mental agony. The crux of the matter revolves around the petitioner’s contention that, as a person with disabilities, they should have been granted hostel accommodation regardless of pursuing a second Master’s level course, in accordance with the provisions of the RPWD Act and the JNU Hostel Manual.

The Court acknowledged the distinction between individuals who are differently abled and the traditional concept of disability. It aligns with the viewpoint articulated by Mr. Rahul Bajaj, emphasizing that everyone possesses varying abilities and challenges. The Court underscored the legislative intent of laws such as the Right of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWD Act), which seeks to neutralize these differences and ensure equal opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their abilities. The Court further critiqued the application of certain clauses from the JNU Hostel Manual, arguing that while they may appear equitable on the surface, their implementation may lead to discrimination against differently abled students. The Court examined Clause 2.1.1(a) and Clause (5) of Annexure X to the Hostel Manual, highlighting the potential for these provisions to perpetuate inequality if applied without due consideration for the unique needs of differently abled individuals.

Moreover, the Court emphasized the legal obligations of educational institutions under the RPWD Act to provide reasonable accommodations to differently-abled students. It cited specific provisions of the Act, such as Section 16(iii), which obligated educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodation according to individual requirements. The court argued that these obligations supersede any provisions within the JNU Hostel Manual that may contradict or undermine the rights of differently abled students. The Court advocated for a holistic and inclusive approach to accommodating differently abled students within educational institutions. It highlighted Clause (3) in Annexure X to the Hostel Manual as a special dispensation for differently abled students, emphasizing that it guarantees hostel accommodation irrespective of other categorizations. The court contended that institutional policies must align with the mandate of the RPWD Act to ensure equal access to educational opportunities for all individuals.

The Court remarked that “The provisions of the RPWD Act would have overarching priority over all provisions of the JNU Hostel Manual. Enforcement of the provisions of the Hostel Manual can only, therefore, be said to be lawful if it is in sync with the mandate of the RPWD Act. The JNU must be acutely conscious of its obligations under the RPWD Act, and the law that has developed in that regard, while implementing the provisions of its Hostel Manual — or, for that matter, while taking any other executive or administrative decision.”

The Court remarked “Law always leans towards reasonableness. If, for example, the JNU were to be flooded with differently abled students, and the influx was such that it was unreasonable to expect the JNU to accommodate everyone, no law, including the RPWD Act, would obligate the JNU to do so. But, for that, the JNU would have to place empirical data on the table to make out a case of the impossibility — or even impracticability — of compliance with the mandate of the RPWD Act. No empirical data whatsoever has been provided by the JNU, to indicate that it would be unreasonable to expect the JNU to provide hostel accommodation to the petitioner. Sans any such data, the plea cannot sustain.”

The Court held that the petitioner was, therefore, entitled, as of right, to hostel accommodation, provided by the JNU within its campus, free of cost, with all other entitlements to which a differently abled student is entitled under the law and the policies of the JNU, till completion of his Masters degree course in Sociology.

[Sanjeev Kumar Mishra v. JNU, 2024 SCC OnLine Del 1362, decided on 26-02-2024]

Advocates who appeared in this case:

Mr. Rahul Bajaj, Advocate for petitioner

Mr. Subhrodeep Saha and Mr. Kushal for Ms. Monika Arora, CGSC

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