On January 11, 2010, a child burned to death when a land dispute in India's Bihar state turned ugly. Half a dozen roadside huts that were home to families affected by leprosy were torched by a man who owned the adjacent land. The previous week, the landowner had beaten one of the residents and warned the community of serious consequences if they didn't leave. He wanted to sell his property, and the presence of the Pipra leprosy colony was an obstacle. The families, who had been living there for 20 years, refused to budge as their huts stood on government land.
Not so long ago, an incident such as this might well have been shrugged off by the authorities. But now there is an organization that can channel protest in an effective manner, India's National Forum of people affected by leprosy. Colony leaders representing Bihar state had already complained about the beating to local police, who had issued a written instruction to the landowner not to harass the community. Following the arson attack, the leaders swung into action again. They organized a road block and demanded that the assailant be arrested and that the family of the dead child receive compensation. Mr. S.K. Dutta, who heads the National Forum Northern Region, traveled to Bihar from Delhi and spent four days there working with the community and contacting, among others, the chief minister of the state. Mr. G. Venu Gopal, the forum's general secretary, has also worked tirelessly, communicating the reality on the ground to outside supporters.
Only the previous month, the National Forum, together with IDEA India, had organized a workshop in Patna on social and economic empowerment of people affected by leprosy in Bihar. Now these people were witnessing how the National Forum. their forum. can bring pressure to bear on their behalf. The standing of the National Forum in Bihar has never been higher, but it has taken a tragedy to underline its effectiveness. (At time of writing, the state had agreed to pay the bereaved family Rps. 150,000 and police were hunting for the landowner.)