For more than 40 years, residents of a leprosy colony in West Bengal’s Bishnupur, are living without any benefits from the government.
Rajib Bauri has been working as a tussar silk farmer for 40 years as a daily wage laborer. But when it comes to getting paid, he always returns empty-handed. His nominal fee of Rs.100 per day is delayed for months without notice. Rajib, along with 28 other families, lives in Peardoba leprosy Care Unit, Bishnupur in West Bengal. A care unit built as a World War-II army campsite in 1976 for leprosy patients.
"There was a military camp here. It was all covered in jungles and they rehabilitated us", said Ashu Maity, resident of the leprosy colony.
In 2005, India declared that it was a leprosy-free country and it has been nearly 14 years since. However, India is still home to 60% of the world's leprosy patients. According to the National Leprosy Elimination Program (NLEP) report, 9,175 leprosy cases were on record in West Bengal alone in 2017-2018. Despite new cases, and records, the government has been reluctant to address the issue.
Residents of the Peardoba leprosy colony live in abysmal conditions. The government promised to give Rs.100 per day to each family a fee for working at fruit farms and tussar silk farms. But the residents complained that their bank accounts are empty when they try to withdraw money. These farmlands are owned by government authorities. "The society has a joint account with the BDO. We cannot withdraw when we want to", said Rajib. Due to the social stigma attached to leprosy, people are constrained to work on these farms and elsewhere to earn their livelihood.
The residents of the care unit are forced to take small loans from local ration shops for every morsel of their meal. "It is extremely tough. What do I say? Some of them are out on the streets to beg. It is such a shame. The previous officers used to stop us from begging. These ones are encouraging us to beg”, said one of the residents of the leprosy colony.
There is an immense taboo attached towards leprosy patients in India, despite various awareness programmes by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the Indian government. However, local authorities in Bishnupur are now using this stigma to exploit the patients which have led to the ostracizing of leprosy patients from places of social gathering including the daily workforce.
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