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GST - A Barrier to Human Rights for Persons with Disabilities

Posted by Nirmita Narasimhan at Jun 24, 2017 05:05 PM |
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The Centre of Internet & Society made a submission on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which will be coming into play from July 2017 onwards. In this blog post Nirmita Narasimhan assesses the impact of GST on persons with disabilities.
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The GST Acts - Central Goods and Services Tax Act, Integrated Goods and Services Tax Act and the  Union Territory Goods and Services Tax Act passed on 12 April 2017 and the subsequent notification of the Revised GST Rate for Certain Goods on 11th June 2017 have serious and severe implications on basic rights and freedoms for persons with disabilities, hindering them from living independently and pursuing education, and employment. This note outlines the impact of the GST measures as well as recommendations to ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities are not compromised.

Problem Statement

As per the 2011 census, India has over 21 million people with disabilities which is around 2.17% of the population. Persons with disabilities face many hurdles in education and employment which is reflected in the low effective literacy rate of 59%, far below the national level of 74.04% as well as a low work participation rate at 36.3%.[1]

Lower levels of literacy and employment in turn imply lower income levels for this group. Thus, additional support through policy, financial and operational measures is required to help persons with disabilities participate fully in the economy. The new GST rules however, seek to impose tax on assistive technologies and goods and services which are essential for the advancement of persons with disabilities, hampering their mobility and ability to participate in education and employment thus further compounding the disadvantages already faced by this group.

Main Concerns

The specific GST provisions that negatively impact persons with disabilities include:

  • 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 organizations like the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP), the Disability Rights Organisations Forum (DROF), and various regional groups)[2]
  • 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.
  • Braille books are exempt from the tax while other Braille implements are not.
  • 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.

GST – Hampering Accessibility and Inclusion

Under the existing tax regime, many of these goods have traditionally been exempt from indirect taxes such as VAT, excise and customs. Even with the exemptions, assistive technologies have not been affordable. However, with the addition of GST, the situation becomes even more dire. For instance, according to India Today, the current market price for a Braille typewriter is about INR 34,000[3], or over 20 times higher than the monthly income of an impoverished urban Indian. Even with the new 5 percent GST (a reduction from the previous 18 percent), this would work out to INR 35,700.  Given that 29.5 percent of the total population of India remained below the poverty line in 2011-12 and had a monthly per capita consumption of less than INR 972 in rural areas and INR 1407 in urban areas, [4] assistive technology would be prohibitively expensive even for the average Indian, let alone persons with disabilities.

GST – Discriminatory against Persons with Disabilities

The proposed GST on assistive technology is not only detrimental to the use of assistive technology, it discriminates against the right to equality of persons with disabilities.

Tools necessary for people pursuing their livelihood, such as agricultural implements and hand tools such as spades, shovels, mattocks, etc. used in agriculture, horticulture and forestry are exempt from any tax.  However, assistive technologies which are just as vital for the education and livelihood of persons with disabilities, have been included in the list of items taxed under GST. While the Government of India’s move to protect the livelihood of agricultural workers is commendable, it needs to equally protect the right to livelihood of persons with disabilities who are working  - 31% of whom are in the agricultural sector and will suffer from the imposition of GST.

GST – Impacting Mobility

The proposed GST on motor vehicles for persons with disabilities also impacts their right to mobility as per Article 41(2) of the Persons with Disabilities Act  which  calls for the government of India to “promote the personal mobility of persons with disabilities at affordable cost” through measures including incentives and concessions. The imposition of such a high tax on car purchases by persons with disabilities is in direct contravention of this.

Legal Framework

The proposed GST implementation and tax on products and services that are critical for persons with disabilities to pursue independence, literacy and employment with dignity runs counter to both national and international law to which India is a signatory.

Article 38 of the Constitution of India also requires the government to minimize inequalities in income, status, facilities and opportunities among individuals and groups of people.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, enjoin the government to utilise the capacity of persons with disabilities by providing appropriate environment (Art 3(2) ) and take necessary steps to ensure reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities (Art 3(5)).

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which India has signed and ratified, calls on nations to promote the development and adoption of assistive technologies and devices for persons with disabilities, again “giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost.”  (Article 4 (g)). Additional provisions include:

  • Art 4 – General Obligations asks states parties to take into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes;
  • Art 5 (3) -  asks States Parties to take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided
  • Article 20 also requires nations to facilitate access to mobility aids, assistive technologies and other intermediaries, and requires that they be made available at affordable cost.
  • Art 24 on Education enjoins States parties to ensure persons with disabilities have access to inclusive education, that reasonable accommodation is provided and use of Braille, alternative modes and formats is facilitated
  • Art 27 on Work and employment  required nations to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, to just and favourable conditions of work
  • Art 29 on participation in political and public life advocates the creation of an environment that enables persons with disabilities to participate fully and effectively in the conduct of public affairs

International Practices

While developed countries do levy some tax on assistive technology and devices used by persons with disabilities, these are typically lower than the general rates. Countries in the EU levy lower VAT rates on medical equipment for persons with disabilities [5] for instance 6% in Belgium and 3% in Luxembourg. However, a point to be noted here is that the literacy and employment rates for persons with disabilities in these countries are much higher than in India, where the low literacy and work participation mean that even low levels of taxation on assistive technology make items prohibitively expensive.

An alternative approach more suitable in the Indian context, is that followed by developing countries such as Brazil and the Philippines. In Brazil, which has around 16 million [6] persons with disabilities, the import and sale of assistive technologies such as wheelchairs, Braille machines, calculators with voice synthesizers and hearing aids are exempt from major federal taxes. In addition, persons with disabilities wishing to buy a car also enjoy exemptions from several federal and municipal taxes. [7] In the Philippines, where 1.57 % of the population [8] have some form of disability, the  Republic Act 9442[9] guarantees a 20 per cent discount for persons with disabilities and also provides assistance for education. Discounted goods and services include:

  • Restaurants, hotels and other recreation centers
  • Theaters, concert halls, carnivals, and other cultural and leisure centers
  • The purchase of medicines from drugstores
  • Medical, diagnostic and laboratory fees
  • Medical and dental service, including doctors’ fees
  • Domestic air and sea travel
  • Public railways, skyways, and bus fare

In addition to this, Republic Act 10754 [10] adds an exemption from the 12 percent VAT for persons with disabilities as well. Both of these represent a significant discount.

Conclusion

  1. We fully concur with the representations made by different organisations working for persons with disabilities in India seeking a complete roll back of GST for persons with disabilities. India has in the past, refrained from taxing the disabled deliberately, keeping in mind their particular needs and circumstances and nothing has changed in the past few years to warrant this move. Persons with disabilities remain below the poverty line, without access to information, resources and the ability to enjoy even their basic human rights to live a life of freedom, independence, dignity, inclusion and participation. It is unconscionable to place such articles of basic need such as crutches and wheel chairs without which a person cannot even move on the same level as other goods. Certainly these are more basic than other items such as glass bangles or kajal which are not subject to GST or semi-precious stones which are taxed at a very minimum.
  2. Rolling back GST would be in accordance with national and international legal commitment. India cannot place itself on the same level as countries in the EU for taxing the disabled; we do not have the same infrastructure and resources which these countries have made available for their disabled citizens, nor the social security measures which they offer. They are better placed in terms of development and progress of the disabled, with regard to education, employment and daily living. We cannot impose 18% tax on vehicles for the disabled while we are not providing them with a completely functional accessible transport network, accessible roads and a barrier-free environment. A very small percentage of persons with disabilities in India is actually living a full and complete life with access to resources and aids, an imposition of tax will further minimise chances of progress in the years to come of empowerment and emancipation of persons with disabilities. India has been a thought leader in the field of disability internationally in terms of its policies and served as an inspiration to countries around us. We were one of the earliest countries to sign and ratify the UNCRPD, as well as the first country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty more recently in 2014. We do not lack in spirit, however do not always follow up with action. The roll back on GST would be an appropriate move in line with our commitment to enable human rights for persons with disabilities and empower them with the use of technology and other tools and resources.
  3. Specified exemptions for use of assistive technologies- Technology has proven a source of tremendous empowerment to persons with disabilities. Given that most ICTs are to be taxed at 18%, we strongly urge the government to specifically exclude all ICTs and downloaded software and content which are intended for persons with disabilities from tax. By imposing tax on an enabling technology, it would be tantamount to imposing tax on a sensory organ, i.e., by imposing tax on a hearing aid or screen reader, which would enable a deaf person to hear/ a blind person to read, it would be like imposing tax on ears or eyes. We hence strongly urge the government to reconsider the present move and set right the error which has been committed by subjecting goods and services for persons with disabilities to tax. We recommend review, complete roll back and explicit exemption on all goods and services for persons with disabilities from the purview of GST.

23 June, 2017


[1]. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population_enumeration.html

[2]. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-otherstates/drag-seeks-rollback-of-gst-ondisability-aids/article19123085.ece

[3]. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/gst-goods-and-services-tax-arun-jaitley-narendra-modi-disabledbraille/1/967920.html

[4]. http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/pov_rep0707.pdf

[5]. http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/sites/taxation/files/resources/documents/taxation/vat/how_vat_ works/rates/vat_rates_en.pdf

[6]. https://www.disabled-world.com/news/south-america/

[7]. http://thebrazilbusiness.com/article/tax-reduction-for-people-with-disabilities

[8]. https://psa.gov.ph/content/persons-disability-philippines-results-2010-census

[9]. http://www.ncda.gov.ph/disability-laws/republic-acts/republic-act-9442/

[10]. http://www.ncda.gov.ph/disability-laws/implementing-rules-and-regulations-irr/irr-of-ra-10754-anact-expanding-the-benefits-and-privileges-of-persons-with-disability-pwd/

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