|Visting Kankar Danga Leprosy Colony in West Bengal|
From Ethiopia I flew to India for the second time in a month. My destination this time was West Bengal. After Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar, West Bengal annually reports the most number of new cases - 11,683 cases in 2012. A particular concern is the high rate of visible disability at time of diagnosis, which is a clear sign that cases are being diagnosed late. In particular, the state capital Kolkata reports 10% of new cases with Grade II disability, compared with a national average of 3%. Perhaps this should come as no surprise when one learns that more than half the districts in West Bengal have no leprosy officer.
On September 23, I set off from Kolkata in a convoy of six vehicles for two leprosy colonies in the Asansol sub division of Burdwan District, about 230 kilometers away. My party included Dr. A.K. Puri, from the Central Leprosy Division of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; Dr. Saurabh Jain, the focal person for leprosy at the WHO's country office for India; Dr. Pradip Kumar Mandal, the state leprosy officer for West Bengal; and last but not least, Dinesh Trivedi, whose constituency is in West Bengal .
When we arrived at Rahmat Nagar Danda Leprosy Colony around four hours later, we were met by Malay Ghatak, a member of the West Bengal legislative assembly and also state agriculture minister, and Tapas Bannerjee, the mayor of Asansol.
|Dinesh Trivedi chats with a colony resident|
The colony consisted of 65 households and approximately 180 people. The dwellings were in a poor state and packed closely together; some looked like they might collapse at any moment. Like many people living in colonies, the inhabitants mostly have to beg for a living. The second generation ekes out a small income as day-laborers or garbage collectors to support their parents, many of whom are disabled.
The second colony we visited was about 20 minutes' drive away. Kankar Danga Leprosy Colony presented a rather different picture. For a start, it was bigger: 90 households and a population of 254 people. Sixty homes had been built with government grants for low income housing. Electricity and water were in good supply. Children went to the nearby public school. In general, people seemed a lot happier.
The next morning I called in at the West Bengal State Human Rights Commission, where I met Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly. Because of my schedule, I could only stay a short time, but Justice Ganguly invited my companions to stay longer. Thus did Radhavallav Panda, the president of National Forum India's state forum in West Bengal, and four other people affected by leprosy explain to him in detail the challenges they face.
In the afternoon I visited the West Bengal Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, where I met Minister of State Smt Chandrima Bhattacharya. Since the diagnosis and treatment of new cases is at the heart of the leprosy control program, I urged the minister to fill the many vacancies in the program with the appropriate personnel. The minister assured me she would do so.
The next item on my agenda was a stakeholders' summit. Among those taking part were the director of Health Services, the mission director of the National Rural Health Mission, district leprosy officers and representatives of NGOs active in West Bengal - 35 people in all. I think such stakeholders' summits in India's high-burden states are a good way to form a common front in the fight against the disease and I shall be organizing more in the months ahead, beginning with Uttar Pradesh.
I rounded off my stay in West Bengal by getting together with members of the NFI's state forum and colony leaders. Twenty one came from all corners of the state to meet with me. They face many issues, including: improving the quality of life in the colonies, securing an increase in the state pension and ensuring their children have access to education. I hope my visit will have helped to move their efforts in the right direction.