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Why GST Is A Step Backward For The Disabled

Imposing taxes on assistive devices is unfair.

01/07/2017 9:50 AM IST | Updated 01/07/2017 10:12 AM IST
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

The countdown has begun to the implementation of the GST in India. Over the past month, discussions about the GST have dominated the scene with several groups protesting in strong measure about the impact on their business. This post is concerned with the impact of an underrepresented group—that of persons with disabilities, who are facing severe impediments to their rights to independent living, mobility and participation if the GST is implemented as proposed in the present notification.

It is unconscionable that disability aids and assistive technology are considered a luxury and taxed at a higher rate than rough semi-precious stones or cashew nuts.

The new GST rules seek to impose tax on assistive technologies and goods and services which are essential for the advancement of persons with disabilities and will consequently, hamper their mobility as well as ability to participate in education and employment.

Some noteworthy points are:

  • 5% GST on Braille typewriters, Braille paper, Braille watches and Braillers (originally set to 18% for typewriters and 12% for Braille paper and watches and reduced after protests from organisations like the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP), the Disability Rights Organisations Forum (DROF), and various regional groups. Only Braille books are exempt from the tax.
  • 12% GST on orthopaedic appliances, including crutches, surgical belts and trusses; splints and other fracture appliances; artificial parts of the body; hearing aids and other appliances which are worn or carried, or implanted in the body, to compensate for a defect or disability. Hearing aids have also been listed under the list of goods with nil taxes, which is contradictory.
  • 18% GST on motor vehicles for persons with disabilities.
  • IT software, consulting and support services, online text, audio and video, software downloads etc. have all been classified but no GST rate has been quoted, which implies that they are taxed at 18%. This means software like screen readers, assistive software for persons with cognitive disabilities, online text etc. which are essential aspects of communications and information access for persons with disabilities will also be taxed at 18%, which will severely hamper their ability to communicate and even carry out daily tasks.

It is incomprehensible that the government should choose to impose a tax on the ability to walk, talk and deliberate using crutches, prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and communicating using assistive reading software for persons who have disabilities. It is unconscionable that disability aids and assistive technology are considered a luxury and taxed at a higher rate than rough semi-precious stones or cashew nuts. On the other hand, items such as kajal and glass bangles are not being taxed at all. Is ornamentation more important than the ability of persons with disabilities to lead their lives with dignity and independence? The current GST structure is discriminatory, making it even more difficult for persons with disabilities to participate in society, and contradicts the vision of an Accessible India.

Until we are able to assure the level of independence, accessibility and resources to the disabled to live a life of dignity like other countries do, we should not levy tax like them.

India is measuring herself against other developed countries where a reduced percentage of tax is levied on goods and services for persons with disabilities. Unfortunately however, the comparison ends there and does not extend to providing world-class services and facilities for the disabled, such as accessible roads, transportation, information. It would be wiser to follow our own lead from the past decade when we had not levied any tax on such items. The progress of this group has been painfully slow thus far anyway, so what will happen if GST rates up to 18% are levied?

As a country, we are not yet ready for this. We are still in a state where thousands of children with disabilities drop out of school even at the pre-primary level because they do not have the resources—technology, books, training and help—to pursue education. We still have a long way to go in terms of achieving basic rights for persons with disabilities, which is no longer the case in the developed countries that we seek to follow. The argument is hence not a blanket opposition to tax for persons with disabilities, just because they are disabled, but on the basis that until and unless we are able to assure the level of independence, accessibility and resources to the disabled to live a life of dignity and inclusion like other countries do, we should not consider levying tax like them. A person using a wheelchair in Germany can travel using public transport, but the same is impossible in India.

Once we are able to achieve the level of inclusion and accessibility of developed countries, we may consider taxing for certain items, although perhaps still not for all on the list. However, that time is not now. To build an inclusive society, we need to support persons with disabilities in all possible ways and imposing taxes on assistive devices will take us many steps backward.

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