It was way back in 2007 that India had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which meant it had to accordingly tweak its laws. Now, with the Rajya Sabha passing the Mental Health Care Bill, 2013, it seems, the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight. That a staggering 134 official amendments had to be made to the Bill shows the sensitive nature of the issue at hand and the diverse views on the same. Nonetheless, notwithstanding the differences, one may be tempted to say that it is a step in the right direction.
First and foremost, the Bill seeks to do away with Section 309 of the IPC which makes suicide attempt a punishable offence with imprisonment of up to a year. This most inhuman of laws survived for so long due to general apathy and conflicting recommendations. It’s right and proper to treat someone, who tries to take his own life, as a patient rather than a criminal. Similarly, the Bill bans the use of shock therpay for minors with mental illness and also gives one the right to issue an ‘advance directive’ on how he wants to be treated in case he falls mentally ill and who could be his representative in such a case. The latter provision is questionable since a person with a history of mental illness may not have proper judgment.
The Bill further seeks to provide better support and facilities to people suffering from various kinds of mental illnesses. It calls for establishment of a State Mental Health Authority and a Central Mental Health Authority besides a Mental Health Review Commission. All this sounds fine but the reality is far more horrific than one can even imagine. Visit any government-run mental hospital to better appreciate the quality of services offered. An estimated 6-7% of our population suffer from mental illnesses — which means over 70 million people! In some hospitals, patients are locked in dormitories with just a single toilet. In the absence of infrastructure and trained medical staff, this Bill will serve no purpose.