Sunday, April 22, 2012

Extra Premium or Reduced Insurance Cover, both discriminatory against Disabled - Delhi HC [Judgement Included]

Dear Colleagues,

Refer to my earlier posts on 02 Sep 2009, 09 October 2009 and 21 January 2010 on the issue since the matter has been pending before the Delhi High Court. There were several occasions that the Court was about to pronounce judgement however, Union of India bought time on each hearing with a promise that they are amending the rules to remove the discriminatory practices against the persons with disabilities (read employees) in insurance sector and dragged the case to 2012. However, at the end, the court got infuriated the way the Government turned turtle on their own statement before the court and tried to justify the discrimination of extra premium.

The brief background of the case

In the instant case, the petitioner Mr. Vikas Gupta, through a public interest litigation, filed by  Mr. Pankaj Sinha, a lawyer with visual impairment from Human Rights Law Network,  brought to the notice of the court that the Postal Life Insurance Policy issued for the benefit of government employees was inherently discriminatory against employees with disabilities. It allowed the maximum sum insured for employees with disabilities to only Rs. 1 lac while their non-disabled counterparts enjoyed a maximum insurance cover of 5 lacs. Not only this, the employees with disabilities were paying a higher premium than those without disabilities.

Thus through this litigation, the petitioner sought parity in the maximum sum assured and premium charged from the employees with disabilities in comparison to the employees without disabilities. When the matter came up for hearing and notice was issued, Postal Life insurance realizing their follies, issued a notification during pendency of the petition raising the maximum insurance coverage for employees with disabilities to that of non-disabled employees i.e. up to Rs. 5 lakhs. However, they continued to charge extra premium from the employees with disabilities.

The petitioner argued that the extra premium charged was without any scientific justification. When the court sought explanation from PLIC, the Additional Solicitor General stated before the court that they do not discriminate on the basis of disability and there is no extra premium charged.

However, later Union of India turned turtle on their statement and justified the extra premium from the employees on the blanket ground of disabilities and argued that the Insurance Policy was a contract between the insurer and the insured. That in the insurance business a pool was created through contributions made by persons seeking to protect themselves from common risk. Premium was collected by insurance companies which also act as trustee to the pool. Any loss to the insured in case of happening of an uncertain event was paid out of this pool. It worked on the principle of risk sharing. Therefore, prejudice would be caused to the normal insured persons in case of any casualty of the disabled persons. As disabled persons are more prone to accidental risks as compared to normal persons and the amount which is to be paid to the family of the deceased would be paid out of the same pool.  Hence, it is justified to charge extra premium from the employees with disabilities. They also argued that extra premium payable by the disabled person is marginally different from the premium payable by normal persons. Further they justified the extra premium on the ground that the extent of handicap differs from one person to another and that they would continue to charge differential premium decided upon the health profile of the individual proponent.

The petitioner argued that the extra premium clause has no scientific base nor can be justified by any legal enactment or any empirical study. On the contrary, such a standalone stipulation for Persons with Disabilities in form of a special scheme in the Postal Life Insurance for Government employees was discriminatory, non-inclusive, unjust and violates principles of natural justice of equity and fairness and above all it ran against the mandate of the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 and the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities that India is a proud signatory to. Further, it specifically violated Articles 3 and 25(e) of the UN Convention.

The petitioner accepted the rationale of PLI to the extent that any loss to the insured in case of happening of an uncertain event is paid out of this pool and that it worked on the Principle of risk sharing. However the petitioner strongly refuted that disabled persons are more prone to accidental risks as compared to normal persons. On the contrary, the petitioner argued, there was no empirical study or data to support or substantiate such a baseless, false and biased view which only reinforced the stereotypes about persons with disability and their proneness to accident.

Petitioner argued that the right to equality and non-discrimination were inalienable rights which couldn't be taken away by any contract and charging extra premium from employees with disabilities was a direct discrimination with them on the basis of disability which was in direct conflict with Article 2 of UNCRPD.

The petitioner also argued that the justification of health profile put forward by the respondents was faulty for they seem to treat disability as a negative health profile. It was stressed that living with disability was distinct from suffering from a life threatening disease, while the respondent seemed to consider both as synonymous. An employee with visual impairment or with hearing impairment or with neurological impairment also enjoyed good health like anybody else. Therefore, an employee living with a disability would not mean that he / she was suffering from a disease and prone to life risks or susceptible to die prematurely. Such a conclusion on the part of respondent was illogical, arbitrary, had no empirical base and without any understanding of disability, hence, such a conclusion was required to be struck down.


Hon’ble High court in the instance case agreed that charging extra premium from employees with disabilities was indeed a discrimination on the basis of disability and therefore through this remarkable judgement directed the postal life insurance to provide equal insurance coverage and not charge extra premium from the employees with disabilities.
The Road Ahead

I see this judgment  as a milestone in the disability rights movement with far reaching implications not only in India but also beyond India and especially in European countries where the Actuaries continue to discriminate against persons with disabilities by under-valuing their lives. However, India, its Courts and the persons with disabilities are very progressive on this front and the western countries can follow suit at least on this count.

This is just a beginning. We need a well devised future strategy  to dismantle the entire regime of discrimination that is prevailing in the insurance sector and the immediate challenges are:

(a) The insurance sector still discriminates on the basis of etiology of the disability i.e. causes of disability, whether it is from birth and after birth; neurological or physical and  then rates their lives accordingly,  which in my considered view has again no scientific base.

(b) The persons with neurological disabilities are still not allowed any insurance policy and needs to be challenged.

(c) PLI is an insurance scheme for the benefit of government employees hence, it will cover a very small section of persons with disabilities. Those who are outside the government jobs especially those in rural areas are far away from reaping the benefits of insurance. Though the judgement challenges the principles that have so far formed the basis for denying the  insurance to the disabled.

(d) The Actuaries who are in the business of assessing the life risks are not aware of the real challenges and the lives of the persons with disabilities and they continue to live in their own world and decide on their own whims, the risk calculation of the life of a person with disabilities. They need to be sensitized and made aware not only about the lives of persons with disabilities but also the rights regime that UNCRPD brings.

(e) The entire literature on insurance that I had to read while pursuing this case from outside, I found it reinforced the stereotypes about persons with disabilities and their proneness to accident! Hence, we need new literature for future actuaries to understand that Disability can not be treated always as a negative health profile and that living with disability was distinct from suffering from a life threatening disease.

(f) There is a need to raise awareness that a person with visual impairment or with hearing impairment or with neurological impairment also enjoys good health like anybody else.

(g) The rules of Insurance sector needs to be changed in light of this judgement and applied across the sector. All insurance  issuing companies - be it private or government have to factor in the principles of this judgement and make amends.

(h) We need to take this awareness to the most marginalized persons with disabilities in rural areas through several means.  

I am sure we all are up for it and would take this to its logical end.

regards

Subhash Chandra Vashishth
Advocate-Disability Rights

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