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Should go beyond decriminalising suicide

Should go beyond decriminalising suicide
Highlights

After the recent recommendation of the National Commission for Women to decriminalise sex work, the proposed move by the Union government to decriminalise suicide is a refreshing shift towards human rights-based law.

After the recent recommendation of the National Commission for Women to decriminalise sex work, the proposed move by the Union government to decriminalise suicide is a refreshing shift towards human rights-based law.

What the government is striking off with this decision is Section 309 from the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which seeks to punish people for failed suicides. With 309 in place, people who fail to die while attempting suicide will face criminal action and land up in jail for upto a year. For many in otherwise desperate situations, it has been a double whammy and certainly cruel.

The WHO sees suicide as a public health problem and wants countries to adopt a public health approach involving multiple sectors. Our Mental Health Bill 2013 also views suicide from a public health perspective, when it notes that “who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to be suffering from mental illness at the time of attempting sucide and shall not be liable to punishment under the said Section.”

Our own Law Commission has called Section 309 “a cruel and irrational provision” that may result in punishing a person “who has suffered agony and is suffering ignominy” again because of his/her failure to commit suicide. In the civilised world, there are no two ways about it, but India has been dragging its feet since 1996, even though the Supreme Court had decriminalised it in 1994.

For the national media, the immediate reference for the decision was to Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri activist who has been on a hunger strike for 18 years against alleged Army atrocities. Once the government decision becomes of rule of law, she cannot be under detention. Will she continue to starve or will the state be legally right to force-feed her? That remains to be seen.

It is great that the government is moving in the right direction as far as human rights are concerned. However, lifting punishment is only a minor fraction of addressing the problem and there is a long way to go. Suicide is the second largest killer of people in India, which incidentally also bears 17 percent of the global burden.

Now, with the penal hurdles removed the road ahead is prevention which essentially means addressing a wide range of conditions that drive people to desperation which includes illnesses, poverty, crises in the agricultural sector, domestic violence, family problems and mental health. Close to half of the suicide victims are driven to desperation because of family problems and illnesses according to the National.

In fact, any suicide prevention plan should include interventions that address these facts. More over, as the Mental Health Bill underlines, “the appropriate Government shall have a duty to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation to a person, having mental illness and who attempted to commit suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of attempt to commit suicide.”

The country has just taken a baby step; what’s required are giant leaps.

By: G Pramod Kumar

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