The diagnosis and treatment of leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, is now considered easier and more effective than ever before. Since 1983, the disease is curable with multidrug therapy. MDT was successfully assimilated into India’s health programmes, leading to a reduction in the overall rate of leprosy incidence in the country. But since 2005 the rate of decline has slowed. As of 2014, India still accounts for 58 per cent of all new leprosy cases in the world. During 2013-14 alone, 1.27 lakh new cases were detected in India. It is in this context that one hopes the Law Commission of India’s 256th Report, ‘Eliminating Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy’, will initiate a new chapter in India’s fight against leprosy. The report is critical of the failures of our health programme, especially since 2005, in dealing with leprosy eradication. Its recommendations clearly draw from the constitutional values of dignity, equality and freedoms. The Law Commission recognises India’s international obligations arising out of the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons affected by Leprosy, 2010, as well as its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2007. Sensitivity to social stigma against persons suffering from leprosy is a theme underlying the document.
The focus of the report is on how several of the laws are themselves discriminatory, needing amendment or repeal. For instance, the Life Insurance Corporation Act, 1956 contains discriminatory provisions wherein higher premium rates are charged from persons affected by leprosy due to a supposedly higher risk to their lives. There are several personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939 that are also discriminatory, mistaking leprosy as an ‘incurable and virulent disease’. Even the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 does not include all categories of persons affected by leprosy within its purview, denying them special privileges under the law. The report recommends non-discriminatory laws and affirmative action, for their greater integration into employment and educational institutions. But some recommendations may be termed controversial. The report suggests that persons living in colonies for leprosy patients need to be granted ownership title to property in their possession. But these colonies are also sites of discrimination that leave its residents segregated and isolated from the rest of the community. Ensuring the assimilation of the 850 colonies for leprosy patients in India will be a complex task involving an engagement that goes beyond acknowledging ownership rights. But overall, the Commission's recommendations are forward-looking and progressive. They must be implemented soonest.