Leprosy is still considered a dreaded disease in India and its victims remain among the most disadvantaged people in the country. Over the years, I have met hundreds of leprosy-affected people whose lives have been destroyed thanks to ignorance: Many of them are battling disfigurement today because they failed to seek medical help in the initial stages of the disease. And because this disease has often been viewed as a divine punishment for sins committed in earlier lives, the sufferers are reviled, shunned and stigmatised.
It is in this context that the recent report by Justice AP Shah, chairman of the Law Commission, is so important. It suggests that the government should initiate a law to eliminate discrimination faced by those affected by leprosy and recommends repealing and amending certain Acts that it felt were discriminatory in nature. Recommending amendments to personal laws, the commission said under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939, the amended Indian Divorce Act, 1869, Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, leprosy affecting either spouse constitutes grounds for divorce, annulment of marriage or separation without forfeiture of maintenance.
The Lepers Act of 1898 denies victims the right to purchase land and use public transport, and several state municipal and panchayati raj Acts bar them from contesting elections. The Act officially makes for the ‘exclusion, segregation and medical treatment of pauper lepers’. Worse still, under some state laws, the unfortunate sufferers may be detained or arrested under beggary Acts.
These recommendations, although belated, will only help if they lead to an enactment. Enactment must be followed by implementation, with understanding and compassion. More importantly, our society must understand that this disease is easily curable if it is treated early.
India declared itself free of leprosy as a communicable disease in 2005 in the belief that the National Leprosy Eradication Mission had eliminated it. That was a huge mistake and we became complacent. The result: Over 100,000 cases have emerged every year since 2012, the maximum in the world.
(Navin B Chawla is former chief election commissioner and founder of The Lepra India Trust, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)