256th Report of Law Commission – Elimination of Discrimination Against Persons Affected With Leprosy: Measures For Equal Treatment

The word “Leprosy” we hear in the recent headlines. In the recent times, the National Human Rights Commission has raised voice to culminate the discrimination shown in various statues against persons suffer with leprosy.  This issue is not only the confined to our country, it was found as a debatable issue globally.  In this scenario, we need to recollect the events that occurred in the international level in order to eradicate the discrimination against Persons affected by Leprosy. In the year 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a Resolution on the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons affected by Leprosy along with Principles and Guidelines to improve the living conditions of such persons and laid down the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2007 (UNCRPD) for promotion and protection of human rights of the persons with disabilities.  India as a member of UN General Assembly, had ratified the UNCRPD convention to follow the principles laid down to eliminate the discrimination against persons suffer with leprosy.  Despite such ratification given by India to UNCRPD convention, Central or State Governments have not initiated any steps to eradicate the discrimination shown in various statues against the leprosy–affected persons. In this backdrop, the Leprosy Mission Trust of India, an organization with a mission to work exclusively for the people suffering with leprosy by taking care of their physical, mental, social and spiritual needs and also striving hard to eradicate the leprosy, recommended the Law Commission to take up a study the subject to amend/repeal laws discriminatory towards people affected by leprosy.  The Law Commission, honoring such request, made an intensive study in the subject and came with its report No. 256 on Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons Affected by Leprosy along with its recommendations for the said purpose.  Previously, the Law Commission. In its Report No.249 to the Union Ministry had recommended the repeal of The Lepers Act, 1898.

Till now we have gone through the major events happened in the international level pertaining to the disease Leprosy.  However, we have not known what is considered as discrimination, who shows discrimination against the leprosy affected person, and what activities or deeds are considered as discrimination, why we are using the word discrimination in the above circumstances. We discuss that in detail. To begin with, Leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s disease, is known to be one of the oldest diseases in the world. It was discovered by Gerhard Armauer Hansen, a Norwegian doctor, in 1873 that the Leprosy disease is caused by one kind of bacillus called Mycobacterium Leprae. The few facts of the said disease are that persons affected with Leprosy show symptoms of pale and reddish skin, numbness of hands or feet. The incubation period of Leprosy may prolong from five years to twenty years.  If not diagnosed and treated, the disease may reach to Grade I at which stage, the person affected may develop some sensory impairment or muscle weakness, if neglected without any treatment may lead to visible impairment.  Leprosy based on the  extent of severity is classified as two forms, one is lepromatous, which is considered as dangerous or server form; on the other hand, the other form is non-lepromatous, which is not severe in nature. Statistics found that persons affected with former one constituted about 15-20%, all other persons affected are with lepromatous type.  In India, without knowing the facts, there are several myths about the leprosy disease and people still believe those myths, and want to stay away from them as one of such myths they believe is that infection of Leprosy spreads through food and water, and as hereditary disease, which caused due to impure blood or poverty.  Surveys revealed that the major obstacle found in uplifting the status of the persons affected with this disease is the social stigma which caused in the patients to consult a doctor in its early stage as they think that people fear for isolation and disfigurement in their physical features caused due to the presence of disease.  In addition, many societies believe that the cause of this disease is the divine punishment for their past sins and by this way people outcast the persons affected by the said disease. In these circumstances, various laws enacted were also made huge discrimination against these persons as it was the time when the leprosy was considered as vulnerable and easily communicable disease.  The laws that discriminated directly are still exiting, and such statues are Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Special Marriage Act, 1954, the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939, the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, and the Indian Divorce Act, 1869, which made discrimination directly against Persons affected by Leprosy. According to these legislations, the presence of leprosy in a spouse serves as a valid ground for the other spouse to seek divorce.  In the State Beggary Acts, Persons affected by Leprosy are given the status equal to status given to lunacy.  Even the Welfare Organizations and its related The Life Insurance Corporation Act, 1956 has a discriminatory provision, wherein it stated that Persons affected by Leprosy  are charged with higher premium rates due to higher risk to their lives. In the lines of these Acts, several State Municipal and Panchayati Raj Acts, few provisions are present that bar the persons affected by Leprosy from holding or contesting for civic posts.  Legislations that indirectly discriminating are the Railways Act, 1989, the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 and State Acts such as the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888, which denied certain rights, privileges and concessions to persons who suffer with transmittable disease or disability.  Interestingly, laws statues such as the Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992 and the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 have not included the leprosy-affected persons under the purview of the Act.

Therefore, it is now evident that in number of ways we are still showing the discrimination towards the people affected with leprosy.  However, in light of the recommendation of the Working Group on Eradication of Leprosy, appointed by the Government of India, several State Governments and Union Territories had repealed the Lepers Act, 1898.  Due to developments in the science and medical treatments, The Supreme Court, based on the evidence, had brought some reforms and made efforts in the past to eliminate the inequality being shown against the persons affected with leprosy vide its judgments Pankaj Sinha v. Union of India, wherein it held that the Leprosy is curable disease but it still remains as a stigmatic disease in the society. The outline of the UN Resolution on Leprosy made on 21st December 2010 is that Persons affected by Leprosy and their family members cannot be denied the right to marry, the right to have children and the right to adopt and to be given the same rights as that of the every citizen of the Nation.  India’s obligation under Article 51 of the Constitution of India, is to promote international peace and to do make efforts to fulfill its international obligations and commitments, and therefore, eradication of leprosy is a clear international commitment, and therefore our country is obliged to take all measures to ensure its fulfillment for which it is obliged to enact laws under Article 253.

In this background, the Law Commission vide its report No 256 had made few recommendations requesting that certain provisions in the laws which directly and indirectly made discriminations against the persons affected with leprosy, to be subjected to either amendment or repeal or modification of such laws by considering the present situation and developments in treatments with respect to the leprosy disease.  Commission recommended that in personal laws related to marriage and divorce, the presence of leprosy disease in spouse is to be repealed as a ground for obtaining divorce as it is now a curable disease by Multi-drug Treatment.  The law commission also brought notice to the Ministry of the Beggary Laws, which are existing  across the nation, and few of them are Andhra Pradesh Prevention of Begging Act, 1977, Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, Gujarat Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 and several other analogous legislations, wherein, the word ‘leper’ used to refer to Persons affected by Leprosy  and also these laws stipulated that beggars and their dependents who suffer from Leprosy to be detained or confined to Leprosy asylums indefinitely.  Commission has recommended that the term ‘leper’ term appeared to be derogatory in nature and such term is to be removed from the Acts, and in addition, it also sought to remove the provision that stipulates the detention of leprosy-affected persons in asylums as the disease status has changed and it is a curable disease by multi-drug treatment. In the same lines, another legislations, The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 and Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 the meaning of the word ‘disability’ included only Leprosy-cured person and not included the leprosy affected persons who are undetected or undergoing leprosy treatment, therefore commission recommended to amend the term to have a wider scope that covers larger number of persons who are affected by Leprosy.  The commission also pointed out few provisions in State municipal Acts like State Municipal and Panchayati Raj Acts – including the Orissa Municipal Act, 1950, Andhra Pradesh Municipalities Act, 1965, Orissa Gram Panchayats Act, 1964, Andhra Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act, 1993, the Rajasthan Panchayati Act, 1994 and the Rajasthan Municipality Act, 1959 and several other analogous legislations, that disqualified the leprosy-affected persons to hold civic posts.  Commission sought to remove such provisions that made discrimination against the persons affected with leprosy.

Commission recommended few measures to curb the discrimination. In providing the measures to end discrimination, one remarkable observation made by the Law Commission is Land Rights.  It is a longtime practice in our country that the persons affected with leprosy and their family members are moved from the mainstream society into clusters and such colonies are established either on government lands or private lands allotted to establish such colonies by private individuals or institutions.  It is noted that people who have been living in the colonies for years wish to reside with their families. Despite their continued residence in these colonies, many Persons affected by Leprosy and their family members do not have any land rights and live under the constant threat of eviction.  In these conditions, Commission recommended the Government to take appropriate measures to legalise their title and ownership of property in Leprosy colonies, or else to provide an alternative settlement options to them.  The other major reform to bring in this scenario is that right to employment.  Many employers are many employers misusing the existing legislations and terminate the persons diagnosed with Leprosy from employment.  Commission sought to tackle these practices and prohibit such illegal termination of employees from employment.  Also, Commission sought to end the practice of denying them in obtaining educational qualifications and appropriate job training to enable them to improve their financial conditions.  The Law Commission also addressed the discrimination made in Railways Act, 1989 and the Motor Vehicles Act, which prohibited the persons affected with leprosy to travel or the right to obtain license.  Commission also recommended providing concessions for travelling long distances in order to under treatments as they were kept in asylums which are distant from the normal city. Commission recommended to provide the dignity of life to persons affected with leprosy, by implementing various welfare programs which may include unemployment benefits, parental leave, health insurance or other such social insurance and such other facilities.

Overall, the Law Commission in the beginning of the year had made enormous research and made tremendous efforts to fight against the discrimination as it is high time to think about the disadvantage people who are suffering for years without the free movement and are being denied of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. In this effort, the Law Commission also presented the Bill “Eliminating Discrimination against Persons affected by Leprosy (EDPAL) Bill 2015” in order to bring a social reforms in line with Principles and guidelines of UNCRPD convention to remove the social stigma associated with ailment leprosy in our society.

by Anitha Gutti.

Read Original Report: 256th Report of Law Commission of India -2015