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While the government cites 5% GST on products that assist people with disability as a ‘concession’, what is the reality?
A couple of days ago when I was getting ready to leave for work, my friend, partner-in-crime, twin rebel and disability activist, Aiswarya called me.
No, it wasn’t a friendly call to check on how I was faring. She did not want to share something new that she had discovered or give me tips on my new hobby. It wasn’t anything so pleasant. Without mincing words she asked me the reason for my silence.
“Don’t you know that the GST is completely anti-people with disability,” she asked. I pleaded ignorance. No, I did not know. Aish is not someone who will let go easily. “Why don’t you know? Is it because you are not affected?” I had no answer. I hadn’t thought about it. I told her as much.
“You are someone who is socially conscious. You use your Facebook to comment on everything that is happening. Then why doesn’t it bother you that braille paper and pens will cost 12% more after July 1st. And that hearing aids, braille watches and carriages for disabled people will cost 5% more. And the government will charge 12% GST on wheelchairs, tricycles and artificial limbs and 18% GST on cars for the disabled.”*
“Do you know in the 1990s wheelchairs were taxed at 30% and crutches at 25%,” she continued. “The disability activists fought a long and lonely battle and managed to bring down the taxes to 5% when Jaswant Singh was the Finance Minister, and down to 0% in 2006 when Chidambaram was the Finance Minister. Now, with the new GST rates, it is like going back to the 90s. All the work done by so many activists has gone down the drain. It is like we are back in a time capsule,” she fumed.
“I didn’t know any of this information,” I said again.
“Is your ignorance coming from indifference?” she asked.
“Well, we don’t hear these things in the media. There is no information coming forth,” I put up a weak defence.
“That is because, a very small percentage of people with disability are educated enough to articulate their problems for the world to hear and understand. Do you know that in a country where the overall literacy is 74%, 27 % of 5-19 year old children with disability in India have never stepped inside a school? For many, getting out of their homes and communities is in itself a challenge. And even for that tiny miniscule which manages to get out, there is a very disability-unfriendly world, which makes even the most basic of services inaccessible.”
“There are 1.3 million schools in India and less than 19,000 schools offer inclusive education and have teachers trained to do that. How many schools have ramps?
How many banks, post offices, government offices have ramps, railings or even disabled friendly toilets. And I am not even speaking about places like parks, restaurants or theatres. And now, with this GST on even the most basic appliances and aids, the disabled will be pushed back into their world further”, she said.
I listened horrified. Frankly I had no idea. And no, it was not indifference. It was discomfort. All of us are ‘discomforted’ by disability. Many of us don’t even know a disabled person and when we do, we are not really sure how to deal with it. We don’t want to appear patronizing, so we do not ask if they are comfortable. We don’t want to appear insensitive so we do not talk about their problems. We so want to look at the person, beyond his/her disability, that we very often try and discount it entirely, even in our own minds. And from there emerges an ‘inability’ to speak about anything connected to disability.
While I was trying to process all this in my mind over a phone call, Aiswarya hung up saying she will let me think about what she had said. But before putting the phone down she reminded me of Martin Luther King’s famous statement: “In moments of crisis, what we will remember is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
* These were the GST rates originally announced after the GST council meeting of 18th May; after opposition from activist, the rates have subsequently been brought down to 5% for most products, although this is still a rise, when one looks at the rate prior to 1st July 2017: Zero.
Top image via Pexels