Relaxing in our plush urban confines, and sipping expensive coffees means the general “uptown” populace is by and large ignorant when it comes to leprosy. While the deadly disease may have slipped out of public discourse, but it is still very much prevalent in India.
Leprosy is defined as a chronic infectious disease caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium Leprae. The slow, progressive skin and nervous system disease, leads to lesions, disfigurement and loss of sensation in the limbs.
In 2000, India achieved the elimination of leprosy as a public health problem. That means it had a prevalence of less than one case per 10000 people. At a national level, India achieved this status in 2005.
The disease may have gone slightly off the radar, but the stigma is there. Divorces, job-loss, refusal of entry into banks, and being thrown off public transport, are routine-according to Jacob Oommen, who heads the communications at the Leprosy Mission Trust, India.
Thus, the disease not only degenerates the body but also has a tremendous impact on the mind. Instead of receiving care, patients get shunned routinely.
However, there are people who have who has dedicated their lives to the treatment and service of the downtrodden, Damodar Ganesh Bapat is one of them.
Damodar Ganesh Bapat is an unassuming octogenarian, who has dedicated his life towards making sure that leprosy patients get all the help and dignity that they deserve, helping them fight the debilitating disease.
Bapat is a social worker and has been associated with the Bhartiya Kushta Nivarak Sangh (BKNS) in Jangjir-Champa district, Chattisgarh, for around four decades.
A stellar example of selflessness, this man was born in the Amravati district of Maharashtra, the youngest of three sons of a railway employee. He completed his graduation in Nagpur and tried his hands at various small-time jobs after his father passed away. Bapat was always a Swami Vivekanand follower, so it was natural that he answered the call from within—to serve society.
Bapat started as a teacher, in the backward tribal areas, where he had firsthand experience of the issues these regions face. It was during that time that he visited the BKNS, and seeing the plight of the patients there, decided to fight leprosy and the stigmas it came with.
He joined BKNS as its secretary in 1972 and has been at the forefront of all the ashram’s activities since.
It has not been an easy road for Bapat, who lives with patients and shares food, water and their habitat with them. He told The Hindustan Times about how even entering a bus would be a problem. People didn’t talk to Bapat and his team, as they feared that society would suspect their families had leprosy patients.
Today, Bapat has a robust team of 17 full-time volunteers taking care of the nearly 160 inmates of the organisation. Spread over 85 acres, the ashram has a school, a hostel, computer and sewing training centres, and a 20-bed dispensary.
A vocational training school financed by IDBI, keeps patients engaged in activities like making mats, blackboard chalk, coir and manures, etc. Rice, vegetables and fruits are grown in its premises itself, making the ashram self-reliant.
The ashram has an effective multi-drug therapy sponsored by the health department to cure leprosy. Patients are admitted to the ashram after medical confirmation, monitored closely, and taken care of in a holistic manner.
It was only after years that the Chattisgarh Government sat up and took notice and started a grant for the organisation.
Bapat’s organisation even looks after the children of leprosy patients. Not all offspring are afflicted, so, Bapat and his team run the ‘Sushil Balak Grah,’ and take care of 150 such healthy children.
The ashram takes care of an often-ignored area in leprosy treatment—making patients self-reliant. Today, most youngsters from the ashram go home post-treatment, but the elders do not leave. They fear rejection at the hands of their loved ones. For them, a Vriddhashram (home for the aged), is a home away from home, says Bapat.
His efforts over the years with leprosy patients, have brought Bapat several accolades. The Vivekananda Seva Puraskar, instituted by Shri Badabazar Kumar Sabha Pustakalaya, Kolkata, the Bhaurao Deoras Seva Smruti Puraskar by Bhaurao, the Deoras Foundation and Chattisgarh Rajya Alankar by Chattisgarh state, are some of the honours he has won.
This year, Bapat has also won the famed Padma Shri award.
The accolades and honours do not affect the old man, who considers being born in India itself, an honour. He claims to have never applied for any award or public recognition, citing that his well-wishers do it sometimes without his knowledge.
Today, if the inmates at BKNS are happy, content and shielded from cruel stigma, it is only due to the selfless actions of this tireless crusader against leprosy.