The Supreme Court on Thursday recommended that the Union of India, as well as the states, take steps to repeal such provisions of legislations that represent leprosy as being non-curable and contagious.
Hearing two PILs praying for statutes which attach a stigma with leprosy, ultimately resulting in a disability, to be declared as being violative of Articles 14, 19(1)(b) and 21, a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice DY Chandrachud issued a slew of directions:
The bench observed that though the apex court, in Dhirendra Pandua v State of Orissa (2008), had refused to interfere with the judgment of the high court wherein sections 16(1)(iv) and 17(1)(b) of the Orissa Municipal Act, 1950, were challenged, it had taken note of the progress in the field of science and medicine and that the legislatures may consider whether it is still necessary to retain such provisions in the statutes, in the light of the repealing of the Lepers Act, 1898, and other similar state laws.
Both the AG and Senior Counsel Raju Ramachandran, for the petitioner, pressed that the said judgment be reconsidered.
On Thursday, the bench proceeded to appreciate the order dated November 28, 2014, in Pankaj Sinha v UOI- “...this is a cause which can be taken on a priority basis by the States, for what has been agitated before us is that the leprosy, as on today, is curable. Yet, because of apathy shown by the concerned authorities, it still remains a stigmatic disease in the society. It is inconceivable as it affects the human dignity and the basic concept of humanness.”
“There is no doubt that a person suffering from leprosy also has a right to live with dignity...after he has been cured totally, there is no need to treat him as disabled person...it has to be understood in today’s context and the sufferer of a curable disease may not be treated in a stigmatic manner...no person can be denuded of humanness and cannot be treated as an ‘unperson’...there has to be a social awakening...sympathy from the concerned authorities and then the members of the society must acknowledge and accept that they deserve to be treated with equality...,” observed the bench.
Earlier on Thursday, when ASG Pinky Anand had submitted that the exercise of deletion of the discriminatory provisions was ongoing in several departments, Chief Justice Misra had remarked, “Leprosy has been curable since 1980...the laws should be declared unconstitutional by now...why are you deleting the provisions when the same could be accomplished by a single statute...it is not a task for the Executive but the Legislature...” He had sought the assistance of the AG at 12 noon.
In his turn, AG KK Venugopal had advanced, “There has to be a widespread dissemination of the awareness that leprosy is not contagious...Your Lordships’ judgment must receive wide publicity so that one does not continue at a workplace with the same belief of exposure and contracting the infection...sentiments have to be considered...”
He assured that leprosy is now curable by the Multi Drug Therapy and upon the administration of the first injection, it ceases to be contagious.
He also placed reliance on the 256th Report of the Law Commission on ‘Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons Affected by Leprosy’, and the draft ‘Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons Affected By Leprosy (Edpal) Bill, 2015’ annexed to it.
The objective of the draft Bill was to enact a comprehensive protection regime for persons affected by leprosy and members of their family; to eliminate any discrimination or denial of equal treatment; to repeal and amend existing laws that negatively affect such persons and promote their segregation and discrimination; and to enable the state to discharge its positive obligations through affirmative action.
The bench also heeded that India is a member of the UN General Assembly that unanimously passed the Resolution on the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons affected by Leprosy and their Family Members, 2010. In pursuance of the same, the Law Commission, in its Second Interim Report No. 249 (2014), had recommended that the Lepers Act goes against the spirit of this Resolution and, therefore, requires immediate repeal.