The GST on aids and appliances for persons with disabilities is a reminder of Nangeli’s act of severing her breasts in protest against the Mula Karam or breast tax levied on women from lower castes in Kerala in the early 19th century. This reference is ingrained in the minds of every Malayali for its sheer unjustness — taxing a body part. The same sense of injustice is evident in the decision to tax replacements for non-functional or partly functional body parts.
Crutches, callipers, hearing aids, walking frames — all replacements, albeit artificial, for body parts along with a host of other aids and appliances which the disabled use — would attract a GST of 5 per cent. In comparison, items used to embellish your body, will attract less and in some cases, no GST. So, while kajal, kumkum, bindi, bangles and even human hair are not taxed at all, gold and diamonds will attract a GST of just 3 per cent. Furthermore, to please the devout, puja samagri like rudraksha, prasadam, panchamrut, cotton wicks etc. are also exempt from GST.
Unfortunately, items of luxury, whose deprivation causes no challenge to human existence are being prioritised instead of aids and appliances that are essential items for persons with disabilities for their daily routine, access opportunities of education or employment or enjoyment of other rights or the discharge of duties as a responsible citizen. The fact that without aids and appliances the disabled are deprived of all these and forced into a disempowered state of seclusion has been ignored.
The rationale for imposing a levy on items which are often out of the reach of the common disabled person is beyond comprehension. It is only after the interventions of the finance ministers of Kerala and Tripura, that the GST on these items was brought down to 5 per cent (except for cars) at the GST Council’s June 11 meeting. Earlier, the proposed range was from 5 to 18 per cent.
The finance ministry’s statement on July 4, issued after protests, declaring that the 5 per cent GST rates are “concessional”, is both incorrect and misleading. Pre-GST, barring cars for the “physically handicapped”, aids and appliances used by persons with disabilities did not attract any levy. Let alone a “concession”, this is, in fact, taxing disability or rather a tax on walking, hearing, reading etc. The statement claims that the compelling reason for this is to enable the domestic manufacturer to claim input tax credit for raw materials used in the manufacture of these products and asserts this is a “win-win” situation for all concerned. This requires clarification.
First, items like Braille printer, refreshable Braille display and Braille note-taker, talking watches and clocks, audio labelling devices, DAISY players etc are entirely imported items and did not attract any taxes earlier. There are no domestic manufacturers of these products. Second, raw materials like aluminium extrusions, square tubes and round tubes of aluminium used in the manufacture of artificial limbs and many rehabilitation aids were exempt from the earlier tax regime. Third, it needs to be underlined that input tax credit is, in any case, merely a by-product of the tax channels’ unification, the weeding out of redundancy and the cascading taxes rife in the system that existed earlier. Fourth, what the clarification does not mention is that there is a lower slab of 0.25 per cent for items like unpolished stones.
If the intent of the government is to protect the domestic industry, the spiel must be accompanied by concrete steps to help Indian manufacturers build capacity by way of a technology incubator and extend existing indigenous manufacturers’ scattered production centres into a nation-wide network of distribution, customisation and servicing.
Lastly, the government sought to present July 1 as the most important day after August 15, 1947. But what was the involvement of the people in this exercise? No representative from the disability sector was consulted and their opinion sought on the potential impact that this may have on their lives. This is yet another illustration of where disability figures in the government’s list of priorities.
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