‘Amend laws, give dignity to the leprosy hit’

July 23rd, 2009 - 11:19 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party By Kavita Bajeli-Datt
New Delhi, July 23 (IANS) Do you know a person affected with leprosy is not eligible to get a driving license? Or stand in local elections in some states? Or even travel in a train?

Leprosy can even be a ground for divorce.

“There are many acts in the country that clearly advocate discrimination against leprosy patients. Even after they are cured, they cannot stand for local body or panchayat elections in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa,” Jeyakumar Daniel, director of the Leprosy Mission Trust India, an NGO, told IANS.

He said while medical science had helped India to eradicate leprosy up to 95 percent, the disease was still widely treated as a social stigma.

Daniel said there were 20 laws at the national and 40 at the state levels that discriminate against leprosy patients.

“They are living in self-settled colonies in miserable conditions, far away from the main cities. Begging is their only sustenance,” Daniel said.

So the NGO, along with leprosy patients, approached the Rajya Sabha chairman of the committee on petitions with 11 points, seeking amendments in laws that harm the interests of the victims.

“These acts stand as a barrier to our empowerment. These acts were enacted when the disease was considered contagious and incurable. But the situation has changed drastically. So why these acts?” asked Gopal, who heads an NGO made up of the leprosy hit.

The group Wednesday met the committee chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader.

“(Naidu) said he would write to the prime minister so that these acts could be amended,” Gopal told IANS.

He said India passed the Leprosy Act in 1898 to ensure that people with leprosy are not discriminated. But still laws and regulations continue to segregate them.

In India, the recorded cases of leprosy have fallen from 57.6 per 1,000 people in 1980-81 to less than one per 10,000 in December 2005, which is considered the level of elimination by the health ministry as short of total eradication.

The other issues they have raised include formulation of a national policy for empowerment of leprosy affected, sustenance allowance of Rs.1,000 a month for them, free civil amenities, free education for their children and financial assistance so that they could start as small time traders.

According to Sanjeev Kumar, a consultant with the NGO, under sections 56 (1) and (2) of the Indian Rail Act, 1990, a leprosy patient is ineligible for rail travel. Under the Special Marriage Act of 1954, leprosy is “incurable” and so is a ground for divorce.

He said the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, also says that people affected with leprosy are not eligible for driving licence.

Kumar said the candidature of a person in local elections in Orissa was rejected on grounds that he had leprosy.

According to Arun, who is working as project manager with the NGO and is known by his first name, he was detected with leprosy when he was nine.

“I was fully cured when I was 13. But I am still afraid to tell people that I had leprosy at one time because of the stigma attached to it,” he added.

Although, Arun has a diploma in engineering, he got no job and was asked to work as a petrol pump attendant.

“We need changes in laws so that people’s mindset changes towards us. Leprosy is curable. I am just like any normal person. But people are still scared to interact or talk to me,” he added.

(Kavita Bajeli-Datt can be contacted at kavita.d@ians.in)

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