Taxing Disability:Finance Ministry’s Misleading Response

Muralidharan

AFTER several protests and noises over the ill-advised move to impose GST on a range of aids and appliances used by the disabled, finally the government responded and issued a press statement on July 4. What we get as a clarification is a misrepresentation of facts and an attempt to mislead the gullible.

Even while the figures are disputed, the 2011 census places the count of the disabled population in the country at 2.1 per cent of the population. The vast majority of them come from poor economic backgrounds which is one of leading causes for disability. It goes without saying that disability accentuates poverty with additional burdens being imposed on account of life long medical care, costs towards assistive devices, their maintenance, caregivers etc. Inaccessible roads, public transport and buildings often compel the disabled to hire assistance. All these escalate the financial burdens of the already impoverished family. In many cases an earning member has to give up his/her job to take care of a disabled family member.

These replacements for a non-functioning/partially functioning body part give the disabled mobility and communication and in turn help in their education, employment and enjoyment of rights and duties as other citizens do. Absence of these aids and appliances can hinder these activities and lead to seclusion and further distress.

Crutches, wheelchairs, canes, hearing aids and a host of other devices are even otherwise out of the reach of the majority of the disabled population. Government schemes and distribution through NGOs have failed to reach a big section of this population. There is an income ceiling of Rs 15,000 per month for those seeking to get aids and appliances through the government’s Assistance to Disabled Persons for Purchase/Fitting of Aids and Appliances or ADIP scheme.

Having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), India is obliged to ensure the right to personal mobility for persons with disabilities. Towards this end it has to facilitate access to mobility aids, devices, assistive technologies etc and make them available at affordable cost. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPD Act) mandates that the government “shall develop schemes (and) programmes to promote the personal mobility of persons with disabilities at affordable cost”. It also enjoins upon the government to ensure “provisions of aids and appliances, medicine and diagnostic services and corrective surgery free of cost to persons with disabilities”, of course with an income ceiling.

Militating against these mandates, the GST Council in its wisdom sought to impose a GST ranging from 5 per cent to 18 per cent on these assistive devices, aids and appliances, including Braille paper. All these items were exempted from all taxes and duties earlier.

At its Srinagar meeting held on May 18, 2017 the GST Council proposed to levy GST on a number of essential items that the disabled use including braille paper (12 per cent); braille typewriters, electric or non electric (18 per cent) carriages for disabled persons, whether motorised or mechanically propelled (5 per cent); parts of crutches, wheel chairs, walking frames, tricycles,  braillers & artificial limbs, assistive devices, rehabilitation aids etc (5 per cent); hearing aids and other appliances which are worn or carried, or implanted in the body, to compensate for a defect or disability and braille watches (12 per cent); and cars for physically handicapped persons (18 per cent).

PROTEST & RESPONSE

Leading disability rights organisations including the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) protested against this move. They also pointed out that the proposal to impose GST on these would lead to a manifold increase in the costs of these items, which even now are out of reach of the common disabled in the country.  

Representations were sent to the union finance minister and to the finance ministers of various states. In response, Kerala finance minister, Thomas Issac in his speech at the GST Council meeting of June 11 sought exemption of these commodities from GST. The Tripura finance minister Banulal Saha too made a similar request in his letter to the union finance minister, who is the chairperson of the GST Council. Representations were also sent to the union minister for social justice & empowerment Thaawar Chand Gehlot seeking his intervention.

This campaign resulted in the GST council lowering the GST to 5 per cent for all aids and assistive devices used by the disabled except cars for the “physically handicap”. Despite the lowering of the duty, confusion prevailed as the government made no official announcement to this effect and different lists carried different rates. Finally, the finance ministry issued a press note on July 4, 2017.

Surprisingly, the statement declares that the 5 per cent GST rates for these items are “concessional”. This is both incorrect and misleading. Pre-GST, barring cars for “physically handicapped”, all the disability aids and appliances did not attract any levy. Let alone a “concession”, this in fact is taxing disability or rather a tax on mundane things as walking, hearing, reading etc. There are other items that have either been exempt or attract a lower GST, to which we shall come later.

Taking the plea that the compelling reason for imposing the “concessional rate” of 5 per cent is to enable the domestic manufacturer to claim input tax credit for raw material used in the manufacture of these products as also protect them from imports, the finance ministry statement has asserted that this is a ‘win-win’ situation for all concerned.

This, as various disability rights organisations have rightly pointed out is misleading and incorrect.

Firstly, items like Braille printer, refreshable Braille display and Braille note-taker, talking watches and clocks, audio labelling devices, DAISY players, talking thermometer, talking weighing machine, talking scales, etc are entirely imported items and did not attract any taxes earlier.  No Indian manufacturer has ventured to manufacture these items till date. So, which domestic manufacturer is the government claiming to protect?

Secondly, as for taxes on domestically manufactured items, 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 tax regime earlier.

Thirdly, input tax credit in any case is merely a by-product of the tax channels unification and weeding out of redundancy and the cascading taxes rife in the system that existed earlier. Taking this plea to impose a tax on aids and appliances essential for persons with disabilities is unacceptable.

Fourthly, what the government’s clarification intentionally misses to mention is that there is a lower slab of 0.25 per cent for items like unpolished stones.

The signatories to the release by disability rights organisations contended that “If the intent of the government is to protect the domestic industry, as it seeks to claim, the spiel must be accompanied by concrete steps to help the Indian manufacturers, build capacity by way of a technology incubator and extend existing indigenous manufacturers’ scattered production centres into a nation-wide network of assistive device distribution, customisation and servicing”. Did anybody say Make in India?

If input tax credit cannot be applied for nil duty goods, methods can be devised to enable the government to transfer such amounts to offset the calculated input tax amount to such manufacturers without forgoing benefits of tax already paid across the value chain.

FLAWED PRIORITIES

It is obvious that while determining the final rates of a number of items, powerful lobbies and political priorities did play a role. The UP government came up with a list of items on which it sought exemption. These items had nothing to do with the life and death of its vast populace. They were for items used in pooja. Items like rudraksha, rudrakshmala, prasadam, panchamrut, unbranded honey used for pooja, cotton wicks etc are therefore exempt from GST. The message is clear – the divyangs (people bestowed with divinity – a term coined by the PM himself to connote the disabled) may as well stay at home and do pooja! If not already hooked, they can as well start smoking, as cigarettes too will become cheaper!

Human hair (dressed, thinned, bleached or otherwise worked) which was proposed to attract 28 per cent GST was finally totally exempted. The request for this came from the West Bengal government! Also exempt are items like kumkum, kajal, bindi, bangles etc. Polished diamonds and gold attract a GST of only 3 per cent. Diapers used by certain categories of the disabled and the elderly again are taxed at 12 per cent. This raises the question as to what are the priorities of the government?

Lastly, the government sought to present the July 1, 2017 as the biggest happening day after August 15, 1947. But what was the involvement of the general people in this exercise? At least no representative from the disability sector was consulted and their opinion sought on the potential impact that this may have on their lives.

In the meanwhile, the campaign for the roll back of GST on body parts continues. 

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