The Centre has decided to decriminalise attempt to suicide in a move which will ensure that people who try to take their own lives do not end up behind bars if they survive.
“Eighteen states and four Union Territory administrations have supported that Section 309 of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) may be deleted. Keeping in view the responses, it has been decided to delete the section from the statute book,” minister of state for home affairs Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary told the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.
Section 309 prescribes a jail term of up to one year for those convicted of attempting suicide.
The move potentially paves the way for the release of rights activist Irom Sharmila , who has been on hunger strike for the past 14 years.
Sharmila has been protesting against army atrocities in Manipur. She has been under detention throughout her fast, and is force-fed by tubes several times a day.
Six years ago, the law commission had recommended against treating attempt to suicide as a criminal act, calling it unreasonable to punish a person who overcomes the instinct of self-preservation and tries to end own life.
The Supreme Court had decriminalised suicide in 1994, holding that people had the right to kill themselves. But the offence was restored two years later after a person, prosecuted for abetment, argued that he had merely assisted the victim to die.
The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had proposed a bill to remove the offence from the statute but was advised to bring an overarching bill rather than a piecemeal approach.
Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Sikkim were among the few states that had opposed the recommendation when the previous UPA government started the process of consultations.
This bill is now being finalised by the home ministry.
Soli Sorabjee, a top Indian lawyer, welcomed the government's decision, saying that a suicide attempt is a manifestation of a person's condition of mind, deserving of treatment and not punishment.
Suicides have been on the rise in India, where thousands of farmers who are unable to pay back loans end their lives every year. The loans - from banks and loan sharks - are often used by farmers to buy seed and farm equipment, or to pay large dowries to get their daughters married. But a bad harvest can put a farmer deeply in debt.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed India as one of the countries with the highest suicide rates - 21.1 per 100,000 people in 2012.
The government said 134,799 people committed suicide in 2013 -- 15 every hour, a rise of 11.9% over the previous year. Family problems and illness accounted for nearly 44% of the cases. The Centre, however, does not track the number of attempted suicides.
More than 800,000 people each year worldwide commit suicide -- around one person every 40 seconds, WHO said in September.
(with AP and Reuters inputs)