Shrinking community space

Shrinking community space

The government’s plan for commercial exploitation of a large chunk of land allotted to Sumanahalli Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre may deprive the patients of a secured shelter they are in need of

In the last eleven years, there have been forty applications to the government from Sumanahalli Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre seeking an extension of the 30-year lease (which expired in December 2007). To this day, there has not been a single reply from the government or any communication regarding its stand on the matter.

What was previously unclear was made apparent last month when a Cabinet committee decided to take back 43 of the 48 acres of the original land belonging to the Beggars’ Colony or the Karnataka Rehabilitation Centre situated on Magadi Road. These 48 acres had been leased out to Sumanahalli Society for the treatment and rehabilitation of leprosy patients. An additional 15 acres granted to the Society was lost to the construction and widening of Magadi Road.

Ever since the government was forced to return the 123 acres of land belonging to the Beggars’ Colony to the Social Welfare Department after the intervention of the High Court of Karnataka, the fate of the land given to Sumanahalli Society seemed to be a given.
Situated on Magadi Road, this prime piece of real estate has always been a bone of contention. When the government quietly made plans to hand it over to the Bangalore Development Authority for commercial exploitation of the land given to Beggars’ Colony, the attempt was stalled by two organisations - Rastrotthan Sankalp and Health Foundation. On the directions of the High Court, the government had to beat a retreat on that count by handing over the land back to the Social Welfare Department. Now, the attention has shifted to Sumanahalli Society land which sits on 48 acres of land, right across the Beggars’ Colony. An equally good piece of land, and despite all the assertions to the contrary, the land is likely to be exploited for real estate purposes by the government.

By way of an explanation, the government says the Society is receiving less number of leprosy patients and hence the need to drastically reduce the land allotted to them to a mere five acres. There are also government hospitals to treat these patients, the argument goes, and that this land could be utilised by the Social Welfare Department for construction of hostels and buildings.

Logically, the same argument should have held good for the 123 acres of land in the Beggars’ Colony as well. But it did not stop the government from making a complete mockery of social welfare and attempting to exploit the land by asking the BDA to prepare a blue print for a convention centre, a star hotel, a commercial and retail centre, office space and an entertainment centre. Why should we believe that the present government, which is neck deep in land scams, will not attempt the same on this piece of land?

It just takes a visit to the Sumanahalli Society to see the painstaking efforts made to build a community for marginalised groups who have routinely been isolated because of the diseases they suffer from. Stigma is something many of these people have fought routinely and sometimes won in an effort to lead a decent life.

“Our only alternative would have been to beg,” says Suresh Kumar, a leprosy patient and now the president of the Karnataka Leprosy Affected Persons Welfare Association. He was forced out of his village at the age of 22 when he was diagnosed with leprosy. For eight years, he was at Sumanahalli Society where he sought treatment.

“After I was cured of leprosy, I thought I could live like anyone else. I tried my best to go back to my village. But the kind of treatment that I received made me flee back to Sumanahalli. When my dreams shattered and I thought of ending my life, Sumanahalli was there to welcome me back,” he says. Today, he is employed at Victoria Hospital, owns a house and is an ardent advocate for the rights of leprosy patients.

“Five acres is simply not enough for the kind of work that is being done at the Centre here. I am a good example of what we can achieve. Many of the other people I know have just resorted to begging, because no one else will accept us. The stigma is still very strong and the awareness low. There are people who have lived on the campus for a lifetime. We need a place to live, to study, to get trained, work, and exercise. The concept is much larger than medicine and food. That is why we need the whole campus,” he stresses.

Murlinga, a resident who claims to be 95 years old, is one of the original inmates of the Society and has an interesting tale to tell. According to him, he was one of the nearly 500 people afflicted with leprosy who went to then chief minister Devaraj Urs and demanded land and someone to care for them.

“Back then, a leprosy patient had been killed mercilessly and we knew neither the government nor the police would ever take care of our needs. It is only a few months later that this place was started. If they take back this land, then we will walk to the Vidhana Soudha again,” he resolutely says. Such examples are many. The Society is involved in extensive rehabilitation activities, not only for leprosy patients, but also for other marginalised sections . Support activities include education, reconstructive surgery, vocational training, job placement, housing and even marriages. Mobile clinics and services are provided at all the 33 leprosy colonies in Karnataka.

As of now, there are 400 inmates, out of whom 120 are leprosy patients. Residential care and long-term treatment is provided for more than 150 affected people and training is provided in nine different vocational trades like leather craft, tailoring, printing and knitting, mushroom cultivation, in addition to the manufacture of orthopaedic shoes, candles, paper bags and garments. Employment is provided not just to the affected person, but to the spouses as well, and their children get free education in the school located on the campus.

They also run clinics at Seshadripuram, Indirapuram on Tannery Road, Kengeri and Chikkanayakanahalli on Sarjapur Road. But the sense of urgency never goes away.
Adisayananthan, a co-ordinator at the Centre, who is involved in going to the field and detecting cases, has just found a new case —a girl aged 11 years. And the worst part is that she is the ninth person in the family to get infected. “We are the ones who treated the family, but the grandmother did not take the full course of medicines. So, she is infecting some of the others,” he sighs.

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