The World Health Organisation recently launched a global strategy to eradicate leprosy by 2020. A major part of its strategy is to eliminate discriminatory practices against persons affected by leprosy, and promote their social inclusion. India is obligated to abolish practices that discriminate against such persons as it is a party to the WHO Constitution of 1948, and has signed the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Elimination of Leprosy (2010).

However, efforts to stop discriminatory practices against persons affected by leprosy have been slow, and far from what was envisaged by the international community. In fact, India, Indonesia and Brazil account for 81% of newly diagnosed cases of leprosy globally.

Institutional response

Last year, a number of institutions emphasised that there was a need to reform the manner in which persons affected by leprosy are treated under the law. The 256th Report of the Law Commission of India, submitted to the government in 2015, listed several laws that needed to be amended because of their discriminatory approach. The report also proposed an affirmative-action legislation to guarantee equal opportunity to all such persons. The National Human Rights Commission re-affirmed these observations during its National Conference on Leprosy in the same year.

But despite these efforts, little progress has been made towards either amending or repealing discriminatory legislation. The Lepers Act, 1898, which sanctioned the arrest and segregation of persons affected by leprosy into “leper asylums”, continued on the statute books until last week, when Parliament repealed it. However, the newly-introduced Sikh Marriages Bill, 2016, which is likely to be passed in the next session of Parliament, contains a provision which allows for the dissolution of marriage when a spouse is suffering from “a virulent and incurable form of leprosy.” Other family laws such as The Special Marriage Act, 1954; The Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939; The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; The Indian Divorce Act, 1869; The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, which were highlighted in the Law Commission’s Report for amendment, continue to allow the affliction of leprosy to constitute a legitimate ground for divorce.

Moreover, in the recently notified rules for filling vacancies of Assistant Commandants in Central Armed Police Forces, candidates suffering from “chronic diseases” such as leprosy are, by default, ineligible for any post, without the possibility of a case-by-case assessment of the actual physical impact of the disease on the prospective candidate.

Continued exclusion

While the National Leprosy Eradication Programme attempts to reduce the incidence of leprosy, the existence of laws, notifications and bills that reinforce unfair bias against persons affected by leprosy, works against the progress made by that programme. There also exists little basis for the continued segregation of all persons affected by leprosy.

As noted in the Law Commission’s Report, leprosy is completely curable via multi-drug therapy or MDT (the most effective form of treatment for leprosy, which is also followed by the National Leprosy Eradication Programme). The first dose of MDT kills 99.9% of leprosy bacteria, eliminating the contagiousness of the disease and the need to segregate affected persons. As a result, leprosy patients who have been administered the first dose of MDT and continue to receive treatment do not pose a threat to people around them. Furthermore, upon completion of treatment under MDT, a relapse of leprosy is rare. However, existing laws fail to capture this development and continue to indiscriminately segregate all persons affected by leprosy from coming into contact with un-affected persons, irrespective of whether they have been cured or have been administered with the first dose of MDT. This is not only unreasonable but also against the principles of equality and non-discrimination enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Scope for change?

To counter this, several legislative and judicial measures may be employed. The Law Commission has highlighted a number of legislative interventions that must be made to reduce the incidence of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy. Among other things, such measures include repealing and amending discriminatory laws (as mentioned above), and enacting a law that promotes the social inclusion of persons affected by leprosy and the members of their family through equal access measures. Furthermore, the Supreme Court will also have the opportunity to assess and make observations on the plight of persons affected by leprosy in a number of cases filed recently.

For instance, a writ petition (Pankaj Sinha vs Union of India), highlighting the need to curb unfair practices against children affected by leprosy in educational institutions, was filed before the Supreme Court in 2014. While the final ruling in the case is still awaited, through this case, the court will have the opportunity to (1) clarify the effectiveness of MDT in curing leprosy, and (2) specify measures to curb discrimination against affected persons in educational institutions.

In another contempt petition (Tapas Das vs Dr Chandan Murmu) filed in 2015 with regard to a 2005 judgment, the Supreme Court has been asked to direct the Chief District Medical Officer in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, to issue certificates which clearly state that the applicants have recovered from leprosy. Such certificates will allow the petitioners to obtain employment without facing any discrimination and would be in conformity with the court’s 2005 judgement. While the final order is still awaited, the court will have another opportunity to clarify the necessity for issuing certificates to persons cured of leprosy to ensure that their past condition does not hamper their future prospects.

With the implementation of these measures, India can move a step closer towards ending the long-standing bias against persons affected by leprosy in accordance with its international obligations. Bearing in mind the plight of affected persons and their family members, who are also exposed to discrimination by way of association, such measures will bring them respite and assist in integrating them back into society.

Yashaswini Mittal works with the Public Health and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. She assisted the Law Commission of India in writing the 256th Report on Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons Affected by Leprosy.