In marriage laws, leprosy will not be a ground for divorce

Published : January 08, 2019 12:06 IST

The passage of the Personal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2018, in the Lok Sabha on Monday, which omits leprosy as a ground for divorce from various Acts governing marriage in India, is a significant legislative reform that is long overdue. 

The Bill seeks to amend the Divorce Act, 1869, the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939, the Special Marriage Act, 1954, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, so as to omit the provisions contained therein that are discriminatory to leprosy-affected persons.

The unamended Indian Divorce Act, 1869, said that any marriage solemnised might, on a petition presented to the District Court either by the husband or the wife, be dissolved on the grounds that since the solemnisation of the marriage the respondent has for a period of not less than two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition been suffering from a virulent and incurable form of leprosy. Similar provisions can be found in the other Acts, being amended by the Bill.

The Bill’s statement of objects and reasons (SOR) states that the leprosy patients were isolated and segregated from society as the leprosy was not curable  and society was hostile to them.  As a result of intensive health care and the availability of modern medicines to cure the disease, however, the attitude of society towards them began to change. The SOR adds that the provisions contained in various statutes against persons affected with leprosy were made prior to the medical advancements that rendered leprosy a curable disease.  “Presently, leprosy is completely curable and can be treated with multidrug therapy,” the SOR claims.

Besides this, the SOR also relies on the resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2010 on the “Elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members”.  India has signed and ratified this resolution.

The SOR also cites the 2008 recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in favour of amendments in certain personal laws and other legislation.  The report submitted by the Committee on Petitions (131st Report) in favour of amendments to “anachronistic and discriminatory provisions in the concerned legislations” by the Centre and State governments was also relied upon.  The 20th Law Commission of India in its 256th report, “Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons Affected by Leprosy”, also recommended the deletion of discriminatory provisions in various statutes against persons affected with leprosy.

In a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition filed before the Supreme Court by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy (VCLP), a think tank, it was brought to the court’s notice that at least 119 statutes (enacted by both the Centre and the States) discriminate against leprosy-affected persons, and the same are violative of Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution. While hearing the petition, the Supreme Court bench of the then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, and Justices A.M. Khanwilkart and D.Y. Chandrachud directed governments to carry out periodic surveys to determine new cases of leprosy, to publish in the public domain data from 2010-11 on this subject, and to carry out awareness campaigns in order to eliminate the social stigma attached to leprosy.

The discrimination marginalised leprosy-affected persons in terms of denial of access to health care and livelihood options. The court directed that on Leprosy Day (observed on the last Sunday of January), awareness campaigns should disseminate information regarding the availability of free multidrug therapy at government hospitals, and also about signs and symptoms of leprosy. 

While the Bill, when enacted, will help achieve integration of leprosy-affected persons in the mainstream of society, the concerns expressed by the court while hearing the case must also be addressed by governments at the Centre and in the States.  The underestimation of the cases of leprosy and the declaration of elimination of leprosy should not lead to diversion of funds which could be used to eradicate it, the Supreme Court said in a caution to the governments.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the goal of prevalence rate of one leprosy case per 10,000 people as worthy of emulation by countries.  While India has declared that it had achieved this goal way back in 2005, official statistics shows that only 543 districts out of a total of 642 in India have, in reality, achieved this goal. 

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