Devika Das (name changed on request) lives with her younger sister at the outskirts of Kolkata. Both her parents died and as she could not accept the thought of leaving her sister, who is affected by 90 per cent cerebral palsy alone, she chose not to marry. Neither did she find someone suitable who would be willing to take responsibility of looking after her sister, nor could she find any alternate place where her sister can stay without her even for a short while. She remained single only to take care of her sister like many other care-givers in our country. Her meagre income from the NGO where she is working as an office assistant is hardly enough to take care of the needs of both the sisters.
She became cheerful when she heard that Government of India passed a new law namely Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPD) in December 2016 as she hoped there will be changes in life of her sister now. She read in newspapers that this new law says that government is obliged to provide assistive devices, equipments and Braille books to persons with disabilities either free or at affordable cost. She was hoping that she will not have to depend on the charity for getting a new wheel-chair for her sister.
The local Puja Committee once donated aids and appliances during Durga Puja in her area but that was years ago and the wheelchair as well as callipers her sister uses are in bad shape now. There are government agencies which give out aids and appliances free of cost but that office is at a distance of three hours from her house and they make her visit them at least five times before allotting same for her sister. She cannot afford to take that many leaves from her office only for the sake of getting appliance free of cost. Devika was sure that cost of aids for disabled will come down after RPD Act is passed, and with the money she saved, she will be able to buy a new one.
The Government is increasing taxes of aids & appliances used by disabled people.
Her hopes dashed when she read again in the newspapers that Government of India through Goods and Services Tax (GST) is actually increasing taxes of aids and appliances which are used by disabled people. How can the government take such a decision within six months of passing a progressive law asked she—a question echoed by large number disability activists and organisations across the country.
In a press conference held at New Delhi on 14th June, 2017, a press release was jointly released by senior disability activists of the country namely S.K. Rungta (National Federation of the Blind); Muralidharan (National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled); Dipendra Manocha (National Association of Blind Delhi & Saksham); Onkar Sharma (All India Federation of the Deaf); Rajiv Raturi (Human Rights Law Network); Parag Namdeo (Sense International); Kapil Aggarwal (Federation of Disability Rights); Association of People Affected by Leprosy where the demand was raised to urge upon the Finance Minister to prevail upon the GST Council to withdraw the proposal to impose GST on aids and appliances used by persons with disabilities. On 15th June, several disabled activists under the aegis of National Platform Rights Disabled’s Tamil Nadu affiliate courted arrest while protesting tax imposed on aids & appliances.
Attempts of several disability groups and letters written by Finance Ministers of Kerala and Tripura have had some effects and the government seems to have bent its stand slightly at present as tax is presently reduced. However this did not satisfy activists as they feel aids and appliances should be totally tax-free.
The hashtag #WhyTaxDisability is now being used by many disabled activists to pressurise Indian Government to roll back this move, and has become popular with many shares and retweets. There were also large number of disabled people and their supporters sharing their angst in social media in regional languages. Increased taxes on aids and appliances will affect lives of disabled people and the protests against this hike is definitely growing louder day by day.
It is important to remember here that disability and poverty go hand in hand. Several studies show significant rate of disability among individuals living under poverty. The World Bank reports affirm that around 15 to 20 per cent of the poorest individuals in developing countries are persons with disabilities. Also one needs to understand that there is a vicious circle between poverty and disability—one becomes poorer when one is disabled because of lack of access to education and employment whereas disability also arises because of poverty.
According to data from the Census of India (2011), literacy rate amongst the disabled in India is 54.5 per cent, which is much lower than the 74 per cent overall literacy rate of Indian population. Education and employment being inter-related, a huge number of the disabled population remains unemployed. Those who are employed also draw very little salary and most of them are financially dependent on others. It is natural that further taxation on appliances of their daily use make them much more dependent. While city based educated activists are using the internet to raise their voice, there are several disabled people all over India who due to lack of access to information, have no idea how the future is becoming more and more difficult for them.
There is a vicious circle between poverty and disability.
Devika has some indication of this information as she reads newspapers at her office. Within few days of knowing that sanitary napkins will be costlier but there will be no tax on Sindoor or Bindi, she learnt that there will be a tax imposed on aids used by the disabled. ‘So things which are essential will be taxed and commodities which are optional are exempted? What kind of logic does the government follow? ‘ she wonders as the month of July comes closer by bringing the fateful GST will make the lives of Devika and many others even tougher.
Featured Image Credit: jyoti.seeyourimpact.org