“Good and simple tax” is how Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the Goods and Services Tax or GST on the midnight of June 30. People in the government even compared it to August 15, 1947, India’s day of independence, stating that this was an equally important event in the history.
However, 8 per cent of the country’s population, living with disabilities, is not pleased. The 18 per cent tax on assistive devices such as braille watches, braille typewriters, hearing aids, wheelchairs, walkers and crutches seems unjustified. Especially when lifestyle products like kajal and sindoor and pooja items have been declared tax free. This attitude of the government has taken the disability sector at least 10 years backwards when aids and appliances were declared tax free in India in 2006.
After protests by accessibility rights activists, the government brought down taxes of 22 items from 18 per cent to 5 per cent.
Disability and poverty is a vicious cycle. It is a known fact that persons with disabilities find it extremely hard to find a job. Even if they find a job, half to three-fourth of their salary is spent on their commutation to the workplace and back. If a bus, which is inaccessible for persons with disabilities, takes Rs 100, an auto will charge somewhere Rs 250-275 for the same distance.
When able-bodied people travel from one place to another, with an expense of Rs 50 by using public transport, a person with disability covers the same distance at least 2 to 3 times more than that. It makes me ask, what right does a government has to levy taxes on our eyes, ears, hands and legs when no efforts have been made to make our lives easier. Why can the government not make the infrastructure or the transport systems accessible for persons with disabilities?
I heard a couple of stories, which I would like to share here.
India has been winning medals in Paralympics for many years before India won a medal in Olympics. To play at an international level, the para athlete needs quality assistive devices.
Sadly, an adapted car which could be driven by people with certain disabilities attracts 18 per cent GST. Makes me wonder, if the country wants people with special needs to win medals, shouldn’t it exempt taxes on essential items?
It is saddening to see a spike in wheelchair cost. A wheelchair brand in Hyderabad used to cost Rs 3,800 before GST, but now costs Rs 4,200. While the claim is that GST on such products has reduced to 5 per cent, how does the government explain this?
Braille typewriters and Braille books are other important items which have been brought under the tax regime. While earlier the Braille typewriter costed somewhere around Rs 36,000, after GST it is costing around Rs 45,000. Similarly, a Braille book requires a specified paper than what is required for other books. The cost of books in Braille print is high and they are not available easily. With GST, it has become dearer for the visually impaired.
Since public transport is not accessible for the persons with disabilities, they mostly need to depend on private transport and modified vehicles. Under this tax regime, modified vehicles are levied tax at 18 per cent. Is this a way to accommodate and ensure freedom of people with special needs?
Since many persons with disabilities depend on sponsors for their assistive devices, the rise in prices due to GST may make the well-wishers curtail sponsorship on assistive devices. This becomes very crucial since the assistive devices provided by the government through different schemes are not easily available for all and are not customized to suit the individual needs of the user.
I am astounded by the way the Government has been able to implement GST within a couple of weeks of the Act coming into effect. But what’s startling is that it has not been able to implement the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, which it has ratified in 2007.
The Prime Minister suggested that the persons with disabilities be called Divyang (sacred body) instead of viklang (deformed bodies), but unfortunately, the laws passed by his government are not showing in practice and the ‘sacred bodies’ continue to toil for essentials.
– Rajiv Rajan has cerebral palsy and is currently the Executive Director of Ektha, an organisation that works for people with disabilities. He has been an accessibility rights activist since 20 years.
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