Leprosy is arguably one of the most stigmatised and misunderstood diseases in India. In 2014, the country accounted for 58% of all leprosy cases in the world.
Even with such a high number of patients, we remain widely unaware about the nature of this disease, its causes, how it is spread and its cure. In fact, the fact that leprosy is curable is unknown to many.
If you wish to know more about leprosy and its prevalence in India, you can read this article about a Padma Awardee who was appreciated for his work in this field.
Apart from the sad reality of the general public being unfamiliar with the challenges of leprosy patients, they also have to deal with discriminatory laws, that really hit them hard.
Archaic laws dating to 1898 were in effect until recently. Although the Pauper-Leper Act of 1898 was repealed in 2016, it was but the first step to eradicating social stigmas around it.
The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy realised that even after repealing this law, there were 119 laws that violated the fundamental rights of equality (Article 14), freedom of speech, expression (Article 19), life and personal liberty (Article 21) of leprosy patients.
They then filed a Public Interest Litigation challenging these violations.
One of these laws included disqualifying people who suffer from leprosy from attaining licences to become deed or document writers, or applying for jobs at High Courts across India.
Another law allows the spouses of patients to file for a divorce on the sole ground of being married to a leprosy patient.
It is evident from such situations that leprosy patients not only have to deal with a painful, prolonged disease but also from emotionally crippling social situations like discrimination and loneliness.
However, there is some positive news. In 2016, the National Institute of Immunology (NII) developed the first-of-its-kind vaccine for leprosy that could potentially bring down 60% of cases in three years. You can read more about this phenomenal vaccine here.
And now, the Supreme Court has stepped up its efforts to bring some relief to people who suffer from this disease.
While recognising that India has made a lot of progress from the times of the British Raj, to tackle the effects of this disease, the apex court has sternly ordered the Central Government to do away with discriminatory laws that violate the fundamental right of leprosy patients.
The Delhi Metro Railway Corporation (DMRC) was at the receiving end of some major criticism, due to its policy to make leprosy patients carry a certificate which states that the disease is not contagious.
“We do not approve of the stand of the DMRC that leprosy patients travelling in the trains must carry certificates to say that their disease is not contagious,” Chief Justice Dipak Misra told the advocate representing DMRC. The bench comprised of CJI Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud.
The SC bench further ordered the removal of discriminatory laws that do not coincide with the medical development that has been achieved so far.
“We are sure the Centre and the states will rise to the occasion to remove the provision relating to disability (discrimination). Be it noted that we are conscious that leprosy is absolutely curable,” CJI Misra added.
In a welcoming move against archaic and discriminatory laws, the bench said, “Delete from statute books… all such laws. The disability has to be removed from the statute.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)