India passed a law in 1979 to protect the interests of migrant workers with all good intentions. It ensured fair and decent employment conditions, along with licensing contractors who employ migrant workers. The details of all migrant workers should be made available to the competent authorities and should have a number of other good characteristics. Yet this country experienced the utter misery of migrant workers during the Covid lockdown, when thousands marched home on foot, holding onto nothing but their wretched belongings. The law failed because no one in the central or state government ever bothered to enforce the law. Did MEPs raise this issue after this serious tragedy? Unfortunately, no. Has the government announced radical changes to the law and punished officials who failed to implement them? Not far away.
So where has the good governance promised by the Honorable Prime Minister gone? The same fate awaits people with disabilities in the country despite the Disability Rights Act of 2016, which sets out a variety of responsibilities for central and state government. 35 sections of the law cover virtually every aspect of their life and how to make it comfortable. Almost all states have commissioners for them. No report appears to be available from state governments on what they are doing and whether they have detailed statistics on people with disabilities with them. Tamil Nadu even appears to have district-level officials looking after their welfare. Others may have such officers too, but what are they really doing to help people with disabilities?
What is missing from all of these agreements, as was the case with migrant workers, is proper enforcement of the law. Establishing responsibility for failure does not occur at any level in this country, from the Secretary of the Government of India to the humble peon. This is the cause of failures and the poor cross-industry performance index of this country. Have governments, both in the center and in the states, done anything to build capacity for people with disabilities to help them live good lives? Some states may have prosthetic centers, but they are underfunded and outdated.
So what can the Union’s Finance Minister do if the existing regime for people with disabilities changes radically?
1. The law should be amended so that states are responsible for identifying people and classifying their disabilities as curable, incurable and curable, and laying down the responsibilities for each individual functionary along with the punishment for failure. These officers should also be paid generously.
2. Many rural areas suffer from curable blindness such as cataract glaucoma and other curable eye diseases that have incapacitated them. States should ensure they are taken to the appropriate hospitals and cured. If the deficiency can be remedied, for example by fitting prostheses, the state should do so free of charge.
3. One of the main flaws in our country’s poverty reduction programs is the lack of provision, when such opportunities exist, to improve the skills of people with disabilities. Modern medical technology can help most to lead a better quality life.
The law should contain binding provisions for people with disabilities who, within a certain period of time after registering their application, must receive free government support to improve their quality of life. For example, there are very good modern prostheses and when provided with limbless people, they can lead normal lives. The mere creation of facilities or opportunities for them within the meaning of the law is not a sufficient condition for their well-being.
To top it off, the tax system is non-profit for them too. The GST Act provides a 5% tax on crutches, wheelchairs, walking aids and artificial limbs. Orthopedic devices such as surgical belts and artificial body parts are taxed at 12% and many others at 18%. Also, the import duties for many of these items are also higher.
It seems contradictory for the state, on the one hand, to pass a law to alleviate the suffering of people with disabilities and, on the other, to cheerfully tax the various devices necessary for a more comfortable life. If exceptions are available, they are secured by conditions for certification by various authorities.
As Revenue Secretary, the author received customs duties on all imported life-saving drugs and equipment and removed the certification requirements that often resulted in delays and resulting corruption. This exemption was suddenly withdrawn for reasons unknown. Exceptions apply in accordance with customs declaration 85/2017 of November 14, 2017 for life-saving medicinal products for personal use, which are provided free of charge by foreign suppliers who are subject to certification.
The tedious process of getting a certificate from the designated authorities will kill the patient or his participant. Is it even possible for most cancer patients to do this? Why are only free deliveries excluded? For example, exempting life-saving drugs from customs duties would cost less than what we would spend on shuttling VIPs in separate government jets instead of commercial airliners, as we did earlier, and on servicing the VVIP planes worth millions of dollars . We have gotten rich enough to do this, but we don’t have the money to make the urgently needed exemptions for life-saving drugs and equipment. Why these security conditions, when nobody will buy tons of life-saving drugs and sell them as breakfast food? The author knows the value of these certificates well.
Most countries in the west do not impose import duties on drugs. The Union Finance Minister will be remembered as she abolishes customs and VAT on all devices necessary for the welfare of people with disabilities, as well as all life-saving medicines and devices.
IAS (retired), former Treasury Secretary