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Discrimination is built into our legislation

By Alok Prakash Putul

India passed the Leprosy Act in 1898 to ensure that leprosy patients did not face discrimination. A hundred years on, Indian laws and regulations do just that. Legislation in several states prevents leprosy patients from obtaining a driving licence, travelling in trains, and contesting panchayat elections. And many marriage laws make "contracting leprosy" grounds for divorce

Sixty-five-year-old Kalawati lives outside her village of Chichili, situated on the Kharora-Tilda road, around 40 km from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. Her fellow villagers don't want to know her. She lives alone in her deserted hut and doesn't remember the last time anyone visited her in the 22 years since she was expelled from the village. The world has changed a lot since then. But no one seems to have been able to convince the people of India that leprosy is not an infectious disease.

Kalawati was boycotted and exiled from the village 22 years ago because she had leprosy. She continued receiving treatment at the government hospital and recovered. But the village panchayat did not allow her back into the village, as people were afraid of getting the disease.

Kalawati's is not an isolated case. Hundreds of leprosy patients in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh are forced to suffer the same fate due to the stigma and superstition surrounding leprosy.

Although leprosy and tuberculosis are curable, there is so much apprehension about both these diseases that there is even legislation (from panchayat laws to railway laws) to keep tuberculosis and leprosy patients away from the mainstream.

There are in fact many Acts in the country clearly advocating discrimination against tuberculosis and leprosy patients. A leprosy patient cannot stand for local body or panchayat elections in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. This prohibition extends to tuberculosis patients, in Orissa's Panchayati Raj Act. Further, if a member of local office contracts tuberculosis or leprosy during his/her tenure he/she may be declared ineligible for the job. In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the hearing-impaired and mute also cannot stand for panchayat elections.

India's first leprosy case was detected way back in 600 BC; the disease is mentioned in the Sushruta Samhita and other literary works of the Vedic period. Leprosy then was considered an infectious disease and leprosy patients faced social boycott. In some cases they were even murdered for fear of the disease spreading to other people in the locality.

When India passed the Leprosy Act in 1898 it was to ensure that leprosy patients did not face discrimination. A hundred years on, Indian laws and regulations do just that.

The prevalence of leprosy in Chhattisgarh is 2.4 patients per 10,000 people -- the highest in India. But despite all the government's claims of eradicating leprosy and spreading awareness about it not being an infectious disease, separate colonies of leprosy patients continue to exist in every small and big city in the state, while thousands are forced to live along roadsides.

Srinivas, a leprosy patient living on the road near Raipur's railway station, says: "We've only got ignorance from family, society and the government. Millions and billions of rupees have been spent in our name, but we are still on the roads."

If you are a leprosy patient you aren't allowed to drive a vehicle because the Motor Vehicle Act 1939 considers leprosy patients ineligible for a driving licence. Likewise, Section 56 (1) and (2) of the Indian Rail Act 1990 declares a leprosy patient ineligible for rail travel.

Almost all the marriage and divorce laws of the country make leprosy grounds for divorce. Even today, the Special Marriage Act of 1954 declares leprosy "incurable". Section 27 (g) of the Special Marriage Act of 1954 states: "Subject to the provisions of this Act, and to the rules made thereunder, a petition for divorce may be presented to the district court either by the husband or the wife on the ground that the respondent has for a period of not less than three years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition been suffering from leprosy, the disease not having been contracted from the petitioner."

Similarly, Section 2 (VI) of the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939, states: "A woman married under Muslim law shall be entitled to obtain a decree for the dissolution of her marriage if the husband is suffering from leprosy."

Section 13 (1) (IV) of the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 states: "Any marriage solemnised, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, may, on a petition presented by either the husband or the wife, be dissolved by a decree of divorce on the ground that the other party has, for a period of not less than three years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition, been suffering from a virulent and incurable form of leprosy."

According to Section 36 (1) (H) of the Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act, any leprosy patient who spreads infection cannot become a member of the panchayat.

Section 16 (A) (5) of Orissa's Municipal Act 1950 has similar provisions. Section 16 (1)(IV) of the Orissa Municipal Act 1950 states: "No person shall be qualified for election as a councillor of a municipality if such person has been adjudged by a competent court to be of unsound mind or is a leprosy or a tuberculosis patient." Further, Section 17 (1) (b) of the said Act says: "Subject to the provisions of the section, a councillor shall cease to hold his office if he becomes of unsound mind, a leprosy or a tuberculosis patient."

Section 25 (1) (e) of the Orissa Gram Panchayat Act states: "A person shall be disqualified for being elected or nominated as a sarpanch or any other member of the gram panchayat constituted under this Act if he is a deaf-mute or is suffering from tuberculosis or, in the opinion of the district leprosy officer, is suffering from an infectious type of leprosy."

Section 26 (9) of the Rajasthan Municipality Act 1959 and Section 19 (F) of the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act 1994 declare leprosy patients ineligible to contest elections.

Section 19 (2) (B) of the Andhra Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act 1994 prohibits dumb and deaf people, along with leprosy patients, from becoming candidates in panchayat elections. The Act states: "A person shall be disqualified for being chosen as a member if on the date fixed for scrutiny of nominations for election, or on the date of nomination under sub-section (2) of Section 16 he is a deaf-mute or suffering from leprosy." The Andhra Pradesh Municipalities Act says that a deaf-mute or a person suffering from leprosy shall be disqualified from the post of councillor.

Section 26 (1) (F) of the Karnataka Municipality Act 1976 also declares deaf and dumb people ineligible for municipal elections.

Saurabh Dangi, an advocate of the Chhattisgarh High Court, says: "Even today, leprosy patients are prohibited from contesting local body and panchayat elections in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, which is completely unconstitutional. In a way it is a violation of fundamental rights. I am surprised as to why no changes have been made in such laws."

The problem is that those entrusted with the job of bringing about these changes do not have the necessary information.

When questioned, Dr Trivikram Bhoi, a secretary associated with the Chhattisgarh panchayat and rural development department, tried to save face and provided this clarification: "If this is the case then I will bring this matter to the notice of the chief minister and we'll see that the government makes a positive move in this matter."

Subash Mohapatra, director of the Forum for Fact Finding Documentation and Advocacy, an NGO, says: "The kind of discrimination that's taking place with leprosy patients all over the country clearly shows us that our society is still merciless regarding issues related to leprosy."

Mohapatra adds that huge changes have taken place in laws relating to panchayat and local bodies in almost every state. But thanks to apprehensions about the disease and people's disdain for leprosy patients, no changes have been made in the rule regarding keeping leprosy patients away from panchayat elections.

Mohapatra is preparing to take the matter of discrimination against leprosy patients in panchayat and local elections to the Supreme Court and the United Nations.

Habib Tanvir, a famous theatre personality from Chhattisgarh, staged a global play called Sunbahari, about leprosy. He says: "Cases of burying leprosy patients alive have come to light in Chhattisgarh. People still have lots of superstitions pertaining to the disease which are far from being removed, even today."

(Alok Prakash Putul is a journalist based in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008