I have been traveling to India for some 40 years and must have visited over 100 leprosy colonies, but Ashadeep Colony in Bhilai, Durg District, Chhattisgarh State stands out. If there is a role model for a well-run colony, then this may be it.
Ashadeep is home to 246 residents, of whom 150 are affected by leprosy. One of their main sources of income is weaving and the colony has 16 handlooms. Three were purchased with a grant from the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation, which also arranged further skills training for the weavers.
Floor mats are among their staple products, as well as floor coverings made from recycled saris. The state government provides the raw materials and pays each weaver a minimum 200 rupees a day for their labor.
During my visit, I saw several weavers at work and also met a basket seller and a broom salesman. I watched a woman show me how she makes a broom using her hands and feet. I was impressed to see children helping out with weaving chores after returning from school. All seemed to be going about their tasks with a sense of purpose and a smile.
The founder of the colony is Mr. Vishwanath Ingale. Now in his seventies, he is not in the best of health. However, it was clear to me that his imprint was stamped on the colony.
I learned that he started Ashadeep in 1965 on the grounds of a cemetery. He proved himself to be a real fighter, agitating on behalf of colony residents to provide for their needs and to better their prospects. Over the years, he has been arrested 19 times for his activism and spent time in prison. He has paid particular attention to the education of children, the empowerment of women and vocational training. The Leprosy Mission India has support him in his efforts.
Mr. Uday Thakar of Hind Kusht Nivaran Sangh, who has spoken with Mr. Ingale extensively about his life, said the colony has been a success because of its founder's philosophy, business acumen and his willingness to seek cooperation from all quarters. In establishing rules for the colony, he stopped the sale of illegal liquor, promoted legitimate forms of work and saw that everyone had a role. "People trusted him when they saw that he delivered on what he said," said Mr. Thakar. "A good leader can effect change."
I was impressed to learn that some doctors and engineers have emerged from among the colony's younger generation. Not only that: people from the surrounding community have sought marriages for their daughters with young men from the colony.
Ashadeep colony shows the world that people affected by leprosy can work for a living and lead dignified lives free from begging. As I told residents as I was leaving. "It has been a pleasure to visit with you. All colonies in India should be like this."