Leprosy, the oldest known disease affecting mankind, is growing to enormous proportions in India. WHO reports say that India account for 58% of leprosy cases in the world. As per the report of National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) of the Government of India, 1, 27,000 new cases of leprosy were detected in 2013-14. This means, every four minutes, one person in India is newly diagnosed with leprosy, and this underscores the fact that every four minutes, one family faces the potential threat of social exclusion due to the acute stigma attached to leprosy.
Even though leprosy is not highly infectious, and is curable, there is a strong stigma attached to leprosy, as it is perceived as the result of curse from God, or as the result of one’s past sins. This stigma affects the lives of the family members, especially children of people affected by leprosy. People affected by the disease stand to lose their families, relations, place of residence and jobs.
In India, there are several laws that still discriminate against people affected by leprosy. The British in colonial India had passed the ‘Lepers Act, 1898’ which segregated leprosy patients to control the spread of the disease.
The Law Commission of India recognised that the Lepers Act is completely out of sync with the modern understanding of leprosy and its treatment through MDT. As a result of its observations, in its Second Interim Report No. 249 on “Obsolete Laws: Warranting Immediate Repeal”, the 20th Law Commission recommended the repeal of the Lepers Act (Act 3) of 1898, for being in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution, owing to the forcible exclusion and segregation of persons affected by leprosy under the Act.
In addition, there are 14 laws containing provisions that have been framed on the basis of the ‘Lepers Act, 1898’, which are still in force, and they continue to discriminate against people affected by leprosy. These laws allow leprosy as a ground for divorce, discriminate against people affected by leprosy who resort to begging for livelihood, bar them from contesting elections, provide for charging higher life insurance premium from them, stop them from travelling in trains, obtaining driving licences, etc.
Recognising the need for specifically addressing this issue, the Law Commission submitted its report for ‘Eliminating Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy’ (Report No.256 dated April 7, 2015) to Mr D.V. Sadananda Gowda, Hon’ble Minister for Law and Justice, Government of India. This report also contains a draft Bill, titled, ‘Eliminating Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy (EDPAL) Bill, 2015’ for repealing or suitably amending all laws discriminatory provisions towards people affected by leprosy.
Apart from recommending repealing or amending discriminatory laws, in its report, the Law Commission of India has recommended the government to enact a legislation that promotes social inclusion of people affected by leprosy and their family members through affirmative action.
The rights of people affected by leprosy are often violated due to the above-mentioned inequitable laws and social discrimination, and the acute stigma associated with the disease.
Therefore we, the undersigned, request that you:
Your intervention will ensure that people affected by leprosy are not discriminated against on the basis of having or having had leprosy; their human rights are protected, and they are given equal rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of India, under Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Given your resolve to work for the upliftment of the poor and the marginalised, and also your resolve to repeal archaic and redundant laws, I hope you will take action on this at the earliest.