When 99% of India is inaccessible and unfriendly towards people with disabilities, where is the logic in taxing disability as a luxury?

That is the question being asked by wheelchair users and disability rights activists, who are angered by the move to levy a luxury GST rate on wheelchair parts and accessories. Before GST, these were exempt from taxation and customs duty.

The Centre first proposed an 18% tax on wheelchairs, which was brought down to 5% after protests. However, there is confusion over imports of wheelchair parts as these have been classified under two different GST rates:

  • HS Code 90 – Includes crutches, wheelchairs, walking frames, tricycles, braillers and artificial limbs. These attract 5% GST.
  • HS Code 8714 – Parts and accessories of vehicles. Attracts 28% GST.

Prashant Singh, who designs customized wheelchairs, has petitioned the GST Council for clarification on the matter. The taxes are hitting the wheelchair industry hard, as many companies import crucial parts and accessories.

A person who uses wheelchairs is often using it for 12-18 hours. They don’t have upper body strength, so we need to provide the technology that gives them upper body support. A person sitting on the same position has to be given a positioning cushion, else it will lead to posture deformities. Same is the case with parts like back rests and head rests. – Prashant Singh, Specialized Mobility Operations & Innovations Pvt Ltd

Backing Singh’s petition is Chennai-based Disability Rights Alliance (DRA), which says the government is penalizing disability.

Wheelchair parts are not a luxury item! If spinal cord injured people are to be functional, they need wheelchairs. If they use wheelchairs, they need wheelchair cushions. It is not for comfort but for lifesaving reasons. Why is this being treated like the equivalent of designer leather covers for a car – Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Disability rights activist

It is an issue that has found support across India among many wheelchair users and activists. For people with spinal cord injuries, who face the risk of pressure sores, the tax on life-saving accessories seems out of touch with their everyday reality.

As a spinal cord injury patient, I spend a lot on basic facilities like travel because there is nothing provided for me in terms of accessible public transport. Now you are saying that I have to spend even on cushions etc. The cost of a good cushion to relieve bed sores is Rs 5,000- 6,000 and on top of that, the government is levying GST. This must be done away with – Dr Ketna Mehta, Founder, Nina Foundation

Even in the West, these parts are expensive. Given the purchasing power in India, very few people can afford to pay these rates. Something basic like a catheter is out of reach for many people. There are people who use the same catheter for weeks, when it should be 4-5 catheters in a day – J D Madan, Quadriplegic Racer

Jayakumar says the government must act by harmonizing GST for all disability-related products and acknowledge the moral ambiguity of taxing people who are biologically different.

Tax all products for disabled at 0% with input tax credit facility so the final stage supplier will be able to recover advance credit from the government. This way the disabled consumer will get the fairest price, who will also be the recipient of end user exemption – Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Disability rights activist

Clearly this is a case of yet another policy-level decision that is indifferent to the needs of India’s disabled community. To reduce something as essential as a wheelchair to a luxury item, is nothing less than a cruel joke.