SC glare on 'dated' leprosy laws

Over 100 archaic Indian laws continue to discriminate against leprosy patients in private and public life based on outdated notions of the disease's contagiousness and alleged incurability, the Supreme Court heard on Monday.

By R. Balaji
  • Published 5.12.17
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New Delhi: Over 100 archaic Indian laws continue to discriminate against leprosy patients in private and public life based on outdated notions of the disease's contagiousness and alleged incurability, the Supreme Court heard on Monday.

A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra issued notices to the Centre, states and Union territories, seeking their responses within eight weeks to a public interest plea from an NGO, the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Vidhi has sought repeal of 119 state and central laws that it accuses of discriminating against patients of leprosy, which it says is a curable disease that is "rendered non-infectious after the very first dose" of a recommended multi-drug regime.

It says these laws deny leprosy patients equal treatment in matters of personal law (such as divorce), employment, access to and free movement in public places, and appointment or election to public office.

"It is submitted that the very existence of such provisions in the statute books violates the right to a life with dignity of persons affected by leprosy, which is an integral facet of Article 21 (right to life and liberty)," the petition says.

"Some of the impugned provisions additionally violate the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and the right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business guaranteed under Article 19(1)(d) and Article 19(1)(g)."

Several laws, including the Hindu Marriage Act, allow a spouse to seek divorce if either spouse is suffering from leprosy. Central and state governments bar leprosy patients from seeking public employment, the petitioner has alleged.

"The impugned provisions stigmatise and isolate persons affected by leprosy even though, with the latest medical advancements, leprosy is rendered non-infectious after the very first dose of the (World Heath Organisation-recommended) multi-drug therapy," it says.

Therefore, the petition argues, the disputed laws cannot be said to be imposing reasonable restrictions in the public interest.

It adds that the discriminatory treatment violates "the right to equality before the law under Article 14".