Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sprits behind the leprosy crusade in India

Sprits behind the leprosy crusade in India

Syed Ali Mujtaba

Practitioners of the micro-credit system for human development are growing thick and fast across South Asia. Padma Venkatraman, daughter of R. Venkatraman the former president of India, is one such person who is trying to help leprosy-affected people by using the micro-credit system while based in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Padma Venkatramans first brush with people who have the chronic disease leprosy was some time in mid 90s. She had at the time, started working to rehabilitate them at the Shahdhara leprosy colony located in the outskirts of Delhi. The colony consisted of 4000 people, resembling a mini India. Its inhabitants were people from all over the country belonging to different castes creeds and religions.

With the assistance of several donors, Venkatraman was able to start Agricultural and Pisiculture (Fish pond) activities for the adults in the colony. She also set up a Crèche (pre-school) for their children.

In recognition of sustainability of this project the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recommended in a final report that this project should be extended to other parts of India as well.

At this time, DANIDA (Danish International Development Agency) came forward to help with a similar project in Tamil Nadu and Venkatraman implemented her project through WIA (Womens India Association) at 10 Government run leprosy Homes and 30 leprosy colonies in the state.

Novel Idea

Helping these people through the micro credit system was a novel idea at the time. Even those affected by the disease found it to be very strange. When we talked to them about receiving money as a loan instead of charity, they were unable to comprehend the idea and wondered how they would be able to return it. Most of them, you see, depended on begging for their day-to-day existence.� says Venkatraman.

What Venkatraman actually did was she formed a welfare committee at each of the leprosy colonies. The committee comprised of five members, two of which were women. Their entire monetary transaction was carried out through the bank and each colony had a separate bank account.

The methodology was very simple. Each person who wanted money had to apply for a loan on a prescribed form. The person who has applied would be given an identity number instead of using names; this was done to avoid any discrimination. After collecting the forms, the committee members would sit down together to decide who amongst the applicants were most deserving of the loan. Preference was given to widows and the crippled. The loan was distributed through their signatures on the checks which where counter signed by Venkatraman.

The recipients of the loan were asked to buy fruits, cloths, goats, chickens, cows, rabbits and other such items that they were to sell in the local market. The principal amount was to be returned to the bank after keeping the profit. They each got a copy of a bank statement of the amount they deposited and every cent they returned was re-distributed amongst them as a future loan.

This way the entire management and the disbursal of the micro-credit loans were handed over to the inhabitants of the colonies themselves. Slowly through this exposure, they started learning management skills, banking skills and above all learning to take on responsibilities,� Says Venkatraman proudly.

This system worked extremely well, and with the corpus fund created, dairy farms were started in all 10 government run leprosy homes that met the milk requirement of the inhabitants. This five-year project was completed in 2002 and its sustainability was established through a revolving fund.

Becky Douglas

Padma Venkataraman met Becky Douglas in Washington D.C., she is the president of Rising Star Outreach in the USA. Beckys story is an incredible one; Becky and John Douglas are the parents of 9 children. Their eldest daughter, Amber, was diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder at the age of 17. After eight years of struggling, Amber finally gave up, and in Feb, 2000, she took her own life while at college, devastating her family. While going through Ambers things, John and Becky were surprised to see that their daughter had been sending part of the money they had been sending her for college expenses to an orphanage in India. Even though they were surprised, it was very much in character for Amber. Since she suffered so much herself, she always seemed to have a tender spot for others who were suffering as well.

As a tribute to their daughter, John and Becky asked concerned friends to send donations to this orphanage in lieu of flowers for her funeral. People were very generous. So much money was sent in, that the orphanage asked Becky to join their Board of Directors. Becky decided to travel to India to learn about the orphanage. When she got there, she was pleased to learn that the 54 children in the orphanage were well-cared for. It was on the streets, going from her hotel to the orphanage and back again each day that Becky saw suffering that changed her forever. The leprosy-afflicted beggars on the street seemed to swarm the car at every stop light. Their suffering was so severe, it seemed almost palpable.Becky could hardly bring herself to even look at them, their suffering was so intense.

When she returned from India, she had trouble sleeping. The images of the leprosy-affected beggars were on her mind all night. She finally decided that she could either live with insomnia forever, or she could do something about the problem that was haunting her.She gathered three friends around her kitchen table (dragged in her husband's secretary) and together they started Rising Star Outreach, a small charity dedicated to serving the leprosy-affected in Southern India. Becky has traveled to India 22 times in the past 5 years. She has fallen in love with the Indian people and their amazing culture. Rising Star has reached out to involve her entire family. Six of her children have also been to India serving as volunteers with the organization. Her husband has also visited the charity several times and is now starting a legal outsourcing business in Chennai.His share of the profits will be dedicated to helping fund the children's homes and schools.

Together Douglas and Venkataraman are currently continuing the socio economic rehabilitation of people affected by leprosy in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The RSO (Rising Star Outreach) program is working in the field of education for the healthy children of the leprosy-affected people. Rehabilitation work inside the colonies is continuing through the Micro Credit loan system, assistance to Womens Self Help Groups, and also a mobile clinic. The work seems to have gained pace, more and more leprosy colonies are taking up this very successful rehabilitation program.

India right now holds rank as the country with the largest number of leprosy patients in the world. About 30 years ago, there were around 500,000 people affected by the leprosy in the country. Now due to the advancement in Medicare the number has come down immensely. Still, there are about 250,000 of the leprosy-affected currently residing in India.

In Tamil Nadu alone there are 15,000 people who have leprosy. They are kept in government run homes, each of which can accommodate around 400 people. Here they are provided with food, shelter and medical care. There are ten such homes, one in each district of the state. Those with families are put up in leprosy colonies located far away from the general population. In Tamil Nadu there are 45 leprosy colonies, each of which has around 20 to 130 families.


Syed Ali Mujtaba is Chennai based journalist. He can be contacted at

No comments: