India's network of people affected by leprosy holds regional meeting in Chennai.
Chief guest Geetha Jeevan, Tamil Nadu's minister for social welfare, will doubtless have gone away impressed at the packed hall that greeted her at the National Forum southern regional conference held in Chennai on January 24. As a number of speakers emphasized to the crowd of some 350 delegates, the organization is changing the equation for people affected by leprosy and becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Established in 2006, the National Forum is an umbrella organization representing the country's leprosy-affected, particularly those in India's 700-plus self-settled leprosy colonies. It works closely with IDEA India, and shares the same president in Dr. P.K. Gopal. After two national conferences in Delhi and regional conferences in Kolkata and Mumbai, this was the first gathering in the south of the country. Taking part were colony leaders from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
After reports on the situation in these states, a succession of guest speakers addressed the meeting. They included Suresh Kaul, president of the voluntary organization SMK in Rajasthan, who said that thanks to the National Forum, colonies in different states now knew what others were doing, and were benefiting from their knowledge and skills. "The National Forum has brought us together. This is no small thing," he said. "It will be needed until we achieve all our goals and our brothers and sisters are treated like any other citizen in the country."
In the afternoon, representatives of individual colonies approached the podium to list the various problems they faced. Common among them were a lack of jobs, lack of land ownership, and the need for pensions for all leprosy-affected persons.
During the meeting, three people received outstanding achievement awards, presented to them by Goodwill Ambassador Yohei Sasakawa. They included Udaya Kumar, one of the first artists of the Bindu Art School, founded in the Bharatapuram leprosy colony in Tamil Nadu in 2005.