Leprosy. The very word used to spell terror. It has lost some of the dread associated with it, but not the stigma. The number of people suffering from the disease has come down from 50 lakh in 1985 to 2,13,000 in 2009; but the discrimination against the patients remains.
Archaic laws continue to torment patients in India even as several countries, including Nepal and Bangladesh, repealed such laws. The International Leprosy Union (ILU) has identified 16 such laws and filed a petition before parliament’s petition committee, requesting their repeal.
Did you know the Indian Rail Act of 1990, for example, prohibits the leprosy-affected people from travelling by train? There are laws that make leprosy a ground for divorce. The Special Marriage Act of 1954 considers leprosy “incurable”.
Furthermore, leprosy patients are prohibited from contesting local body and panchayat elections in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
The Life Insurance Corporation Act asks a higher premium from those with leprosy. The Motor Vehicles Act says leprosy patients cannot get a driving licence.
Most of these laws date back to the British Raj when leprosy was considered highly communicable and incurable, which is not the case anymore. Our prejudices, however, remain as incurable as ever.
(These photographs were taken at the leprosy patients’ colony in Uttar Pradesh)