There are 70 million ‘physically challenged’ persons in India. That is almost as big as the population of a country, but this government did not think them important enough to keep in mind while formulating the GST.
Tax increase on aids for ‘differently-abled’
Goods and Services Tax is making things even worse. When GST kicks ‘disabled friendly goods’ will see a significant increase in price. Almost all aids and appliances that disabled people use such as wheelchair, Braille typewriter or hearing aids will become at least 5% more expensive. Orthopaedic appliances such as crutches and surgical belts will become 12% more expensive.
The Differently-abled pay a price for mobility
It is already very difficult for the differently-abled to use public transport in India. None of the public transport are made with the ‘physically challenged’ in the mind. So much so that it’s hard to even find a wheel chair in any of our bus stations or railway stations.
The physically challenged are forced to use their own bikes or cars for transport. GST, which should have actually made things easier for their mobility, has in fact made things much worse.
Even smaller cars are treated as a luxury item and taxed heavily – a whopping 18%. This will surely bring down the affordability of cars as personal transportation for this sensitive section of our population. For the differently-abled, a car is not a luxury, it is very much a necessity.
The Real Shocker: Luxury goods have meager tax
The real shocker however,and one that reveals the insensitivity of this government is that, while goods used by the differently-abled for improving the quality of their lives are charged such high percentages of tax, real luxury items such as precious stones are taxed at only 0.25%.
In this context it is also pertinent to note that though it has been 6 months since India passed the Disability Law, the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities is yet to set up a committee to work for the welfare of the ‘differently-abled’.
The ‘differently abled’ are also the nation’s assets
As mentioned previously, there are 70 million disabled people in India. The government has all the capabilities to turn them into a resource. It is the responsibility of the government to invest in their welfare.
Sadly very few voices in the media can be heard in support of the divyaang
That we as a people have long lost our conscience is reflected in the numerous attacks on women, minorities and vulnerable sections of our society. As the feeble civil society ponders over how to return the nation to sanity, a more worrying malaise is being overlooked. It is the possibility that the state itself is losing its conscience!
Last year, in a bid to ensure inclusiveness, PM Modi suggested numerous times that the physically challenged be referred to as “divyang” (divine body), rather than “viklang”. In Rajkot on June 29, 2017, he also suggested that start-ups come forward and employ divyang people, so that they get an opportunity to prove their mettle.
However, the government’s policies are blatantly discriminatory and it is perplexing that the government has decided to impose GST on goods used by the divyang. The decision is beyond comprehension because, these goods were earlier exempt from VAT.
Sadly very few voices in the media can be heard in support of the divyang, even as there is profound dissonance between what the government espouses and what it delivers.
On the one hand, the government advocates that as a society we must all endeavour to ensure that the divyang are not denied their right to a life of dignity. Yet, with the adoption of the GST on July 1,2017, many goods will become expensive for the physically challenged.
While hearing aids, Braille watches, coronary stents, artificial kidneys, etc, will attract a GST at 5 per cent, goods like crutches, artificial limbs, wheelchairs, walking frames etc will be charged a GST of 12 per cent. Even carriages, (motorized or mechanical) will attract a 5 per cent GST.
Given the dismal and insensitive public transport system in India, many physically challenged people prefer their own vehicles. Yet, the cars designed for physically challenged people will have to shell out a whopping 18 per cent extra due to the GST. On the eve of the implementation of the GST, it is a cruel joke on the divyang people that the only change in their lives is the term used to describe them.
Their cost of living will become dearer and many from the poorer families will get more marginalized. The GST is being touted as amodern taxation system, but one must question why it doesn’t ensure social justice?
Suppose a divyang person needs the help of crutches to walk, and be on par with a person whose legs are normal. How fair is it on the part of the government to charge GST on the divyang person only to be able to walk?
Why must the government seek to levy debilitating taxes on people who already fight a daily battle, against discrimination and physical challenges? Where is the conscience of the government? The 2011 census estimates that close to 2.7 crore people are physically challenged in India. That is more than the entire population of Australia.
And yet there has not been much debate over this gross and humiliating injustice being meted out to the divyang people, whom the PM seeks to liberate from the clutches of prejudice and social discrimination. The defenders of the government argue that the GST is equal for all and some people might have to bear the negative ramifications, keeping in mind the larger good.
Of what use is the ambiguous “larger good”, if we as a society lack empathy and compassion? Perhaps, the PM should mull over Gandhiji’s words: The measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members.
Let’s rise above political affiliations and support our less fortunate brothers and sisters so that they can live a life of dignity and have opportunities to grow. Let’s hope that the government connects with its conscience and changes its policies to make them inclusive and in alignment with the principles of equitable justice.