There are just a few days left. On June 30, at the midnight hour, when the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime kicks in, almost all aids and appliances that disabled people use such as a wheelchair, or a Braille typewriter or a hearing aid will become at least 5% more expensive. And, if the confusion over Chapter 90:9 in the GST Bill is not resolved between now and then, then some orthopaedic appliances such as crutches and surgical belts will get 12% more expensive.
Making matters worse
Even small cars in India are treated as some type of a luxury item; the GST Council has levied a whopping 18% tax. It is another matter that in the absence of accessible buses or even taxis, modified cars specially adapted for the physically disabled are not really a luxury item but an absolute necessity.
Since 2006, these items were not taxed! So, even 5% GST, let alone 12% or 18%, will make life that much more difficult for persons with disabilities. It is already extremely difficult for the average disabled person in India with accessibility issues and additional costs of living. Now with the GST, things of daily use/necessity which are already beyond their reach, will become even more expensive.
It is not clear why the GST Council is taxing disabled citizens of India. While items such as kajal are being taxed at 0% and rough precious and semi-precious stones are being taxed at a mere 0.25%, most disability goods are being charged at 5% — the same as kites ( patang ) and agarbattis and cashew nuts. This decision of the Council blatantly violates the provisions of the newly passed Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016.
Chapter 8 – Duties and Responsibilities of Appropriate Governments of the RPWD Act clearly states: “The appropriate Government shall develop schemes programmes to promote the personal mobility of persons with disabilities at affordable cost to provide for,— (a) incentives and concessions; (b) retrofitting of vehicles; and (c) personal mobility assistance.”
Precedent for zero tax
It has been six months since we passed the new disability law. By now, the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities should have at least set up a committee or a working group to seriously look into the mandate imposed by Chapter 8, i.e. to develop incentive schemes and concessional programmes to ensure that disability aids and appliances are made available at an affordable cost. Instead, the Finance Ministry has decided to ruthlessly tax its disabled citizens! In the first round, Braille typewriters were taxed at 18% GST and Braille watches at 12% GST. It is only after the disability sector was up in arms that these two and some other items have been brought down to 5% GST. This happened in the June 11 meeting of the GST Council. When we found out a few days later, we could have proclaimed victory and had a celebration, but we chose not to. We are very clearly demanding a complete rollback. We are asking the government for a zero-tax regime as was the case in the last decade, from 2006 onwards.
I have the misfortune of working on this issue for the second time. It is like going back in a time capsule to the 1990s when wheelchairs were taxed at 30% and crutches at 25%! I remember taking up this issue, for the first time, in 2001 when Yashwant Sinha was India’s Finance Minister. At the meeting, he heard us out patiently and decided not to do anything. A few years later, when Jaswant Singh became the Finance Minister, he brought down the taxes to a 5% slab. Again, in 2006, the then Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, brought down the tax from 5% to 0%. It has been like this for the last 10 years. Now it seems that all that hard work will once again go down the drain and we will be back to the 2002-2004 position.
Investing in the disabled
India must invest in its disabled population — there are 70 million of us. If the disabled are able to step out of their homes; go to schools and colleges; get jobs on merit; and go to their workplaces and perform, they will obviously contribute to the nation’s growth and its economic progress. Good quality and affordable aids and appliances are an essential prerequisite to this dream story of the disability sector thought leaders like me.
Javed Abidi helped set up the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP). He is also the Global Chair of Disabled People’s Internationa l