For the 98 residents, including 30 children, of Shri Satya Sai Leper Colony on the outskirts of Bagalkote town, 500 km to the north of Bengaluru, going to sleep is a nightmare. “The roof can cave in any time,” says the oldest resident, Shivappa, 60, who has spent more than 40 years of his life in colonies for the leprosy-affected. He was shifted to this colony along with the other residents nine years ago when another colony they used to live in, 1 km away, was washed away in the floods that hit the region.
While other flood-affected people were given compensation and land, the leprosy-affected were moved into this colony of shoddily constructed houses built by the government. Since then, the residents have been left to fend for themselves and manage the colony on their own. Today, the houses are in such a bad shape that they have taken to sleeping outside at night and built tin sheds as an alternative shelter. Their complaints to the local administration have gone unheeded all these years.
“We have approached all the departments concerned and also met the local MLA, but to no avail,” says Shivappa. “Nobody cares about us because we suffer from leprosy. Everyone tries to keep away from us.”
One marker of the pervasive indifference is that the authorities simply forgot to provide toilets and sanitation facilities at the colony. With many of them unable to use their limbs properly, parts of which are wasted away by leprosy, simply attending to nature’s call is a Herculean task. There is not even a community toilet of the kind found in Bengaluru’s slums. So the residents are forced to defecate in the open, among the thorny bushes nearby. The problem is worse for the 37 female residents. Even though the residents have built makeshift washrooms from scrap metal and other waste, “it cannot be a substitute for a proper bathroom”, says Gowramma, a female resident.
Of the 32 houses in the colony, only four have electricity connections. In the rest, there are only open wires with no electricity. Cracks run through the floors, showing how badly the houses have been constructed. This allows insects and worms to make life hell for the residents.
The colony also attracts swarms of mosquitoes and flies from the Bagalkote Municipal Council’s waste disposal unit, which is adjacent to the colony. The town’s garbage is dumped at the site to be converted into biofuel, but the colony’s residents say it is a breeding ground for germs.
“The situation was so bad that we could not sit outside or have our meals peacefully. It was only after we pleaded with the municipal commissioner that some disinfectants were sprayed to deal with the menace,” says Basavaraj Amruthappa Dengi, president of Shri Satya Sai Leprosy Patients Sangha.
Municipal Commissioner V Munishanappa says that the municipality cannot be blamed for the woes of the colony’s residents as it falls outside the town limits. “But as we have received several complaints from the residents, we have asked the concerned zila panchayat (district council) to look into the issues,” he adds.
Most of the residents have to resort to begging to make ends meet. Some go as far as Hubli (124 km away) and even Bengaluru to beg. They stay there for a month or two, save some money and then return to the colony.
“The government gives us Rs 400 per month as assistance, which is not enough. By begging for a month, we are able to earn around Rs 2,000, which helps us scrape through,” says Khuddus Sab, 45. “I only wish to send my eight-year-old son to a good school so that he can have better opportunities in life.”
But that’s just a dream as he cannot afford the cost of a good school in Bagalkote. Earlier, his son, like the other children from the colony, used to study in a residential school for children of leprosy-affected persons run by Father Peter Jamkhandi in Hubli. It was closed down after Jamkhandi’s death last year, and the children lost their only access to education.
The stigma associated with leprosy seems to have made it easier for the authorities to turn a blind eye to the woes of the colony’s residents. Yet they are trying their best to live a life of dignity despite the odds stacked against them.