'Where should these people go?'

Fr George has been associated with the Sumanahalli Society for the last twelve years and has spent a lot of time meeting different chief ministers and chief secretaries to consider the extension of lease of the land which expired in December 2007. He spoke to Deccan Herald about why he thinks the Society’s lease should be extended.

Excerpts:

There is a feeling that leprosy is no longer dangerous like in earlier times and hence there is no need for rehabilitation services. Do you think it is an accurate picture?

There is a tendency among people to get confused between elimination and eradication. Eradication is getting rid of it completely, but elimination merely means detection of less than one case for every 10,000 people. In 2005, the Government of India declared that leprosy had been eliminated. So, people tend to question why we are still working. But fresh cases are being detected even today and they need treatment and rehabilitation.
 
The government says you need only five acres of land as there are not enough patients. Do you agree?

Compared with earlier days, there are indeed lesser number of people afflicted with leprosy. But we have more people here now than at any other point in time. There is a decrease in number, but not to the extent that there is no need for any rehabilitation at all. There is a large number of people who become disabled and over the years the number of these people accumulate. The government is steadily decreasing the strength in its own hospitals meant for leprosy patients. Where then should these people go?
 
What is the strongest argument you can present for the government to continue its lease?

As I have stated earlier, we came here on the invitation of the government and leprosy cases are still large in number and we detect cases every day. Unlike the government hospitals, which only treat patients who come to them, we still conduct field surveys in specific areas and identify leprosy patients and offer them treatment as well as rehabilitation. We are also doing much more than we originally envisaged. We not only treat leprosy patients, but also the HIV-infected, the physically disabled and their families, destitutes and  juvenile delinquents. We have developed a wonderful and sustainable rehabilitation programme and we want to continue doing it.
 
If the scope of this Society is greatly reduced, do you think the government will be able to handle the bulk of responsibility?

This is a referral centre, which means that patients are referred here from the government hospitals as well. Earlier, the government had 25 members for each district, but now, the numbers have been reduced to two-three as most of them have moved out to other areas of specialisation. The number of beds are being reduced in government hospitals and some are being closed down. Even NGOs, which were to be found in good numbers earlier, are not working anymore. Where then are these people to go?
 
There is a veiled accusation that religious conversion is also taking place at this centre. How do you react to this?

We are a Catholic organisation running this centre for 35 years. If we were to convert people, then we would at least build a chapel on this campus, something we have never thought of doing. More than 99 per cent of our inmates and patients are Hindus and no one has ever been asked to convert or persuaded to follow any particular religion. You have to realise that this a target group that is vulnerable to persuasion, so if we had such a thing in mind, we could have done it a long time ago.

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