A bill which seeks to decriminalise suicide and provide better health care for people suffering from mental illness was passed by the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament of India, yesterday (August 8).
The Mental Health Care Bill 2013 says that any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to be suffering from mental illness at the time of attempting suicide and shall not be liable to punishment under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC).
As of now, a person who attempts to commit suicide is charged under section 309 of IPC as it is considered to be an offence.
Replying to a debate on the legislation, health minister JP Nadda termed it as "humane and progressive" and said its focus was to provide better support and facilities to the people suffering from various kinds of mental illnesses.
"This is a historic and progressive Bill. It has been a long-standing effort. It is patient-centric and focuses on how more facilities and support could be provided to the patients," Nadda said.
He said around 6-7 per cent of the country's population suffered from some kind of mental illnesses, while 1-2 per cent suffer from acute mental disease.
He also admitted that there was a shortage of medical staff dealing with mental health in the country and the government is trying hard to have more such specialists.
Various stakeholders including academia, experts and political establishment were consulted while formulating the Bill, Nadda said, adding "the Bill focuses on community-based treatment. Special provisions for women and health have also been provided for in the Bill."
Members across the political spectrum, however, sought urgent steps to address the lack of infrastructure and shortage of psychiatrists in the country.
The Bill also provides for protection and promotion of rights of persons with mental illness during the delivery of health care in institutions and in the community. The bill was passed unanimously through a voice vote.
There were 134 official amendments to the bill, which took almost an hour to be passed clause by clause.
A senior Health Ministry official told PTI,"Suicide has been treated as a form of severe stress which will not be punishable under 309 of IPC."
"Earlier it used to be considered as an offence. Now a humanistic approach has been taken in this matter. It is a very reformative. It is a significant progression from regulated healthcare to rights based mental health approach," the official said.
With Rajya Sabha passing the bill, it will now be introduced in the Lok Sabha.
MV Rajeev Gowda of the Congress said that there are many many good things in this bill and one of the most important ones is the fact that it decriminalises suicides.
"When a person attempts to take his or her own life that person is crying for help, that person is not someone who should be treated as a criminal and thrown behind bars. We need to reach out and find a way to overcome the problems that have caused that kind of action," he said.
Among the various objectives, the bill provides for ensuring healthcare, treatment, and rehabilitation of persons with mental illness "in a manner that does not intrude on their rights and dignity."
It also allows adults to make an advance directive on how they wish to be treated in case they suffer from mental illness in future. A person can also choose a nominative representative who would take care of him or her.
Elaborating further, Nadda said that the bill also provides that electric treatment will be not be given to children. However, it can only be administered only if medically required.
He said that if it has to be administered to adults, it has to be given with muscle relaxant and anaesthesia under the bill. The bill also has the provision that women should not be separated from children and it can only be done only if medical condition requires.
It also provides for the establishment of Central and State Mental Health Authority. The bill also defines mental illness as well as its treatment. Under the bill, psycho-surgery will only be allowed if the district medical board approves it.
Earlier, Congress member T Subbirami Reddy raised a point of order saying the bill had as many as 134 amendments and sought to know if a new bill could be drafted.
He was supported by his party colleague Jairam Ramesh, with even Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien observing that the point of order raised by Reddy was "very valid" but asked them to raise the issue when the measure was taken up for passage.