Last week Dax and I accompanied a few RSO executives to deliver rice and beans to some of the leprosy-affected colonies. It is about as far from our normal life as we have been, and it was going to be a long, hard day. We started by driving an hour and half south of Chennai to visit the construction site where RSO is building their new school, known to the staff and kids as “the land.” The drive took us through small towns and villages and gave us a good view of rural India. “The land” is about 5 kilometers off a main road and sits next to one of India’s 700,000 villages. The village is a standard mix of grass shacks and small government-built-concrete homes.
When we arrived, children were playing and the elderly were sitting on the dirt patches in front of their homes or walking through town. The able-bodied individuals must have been out in the local rice or sugar cane fields. As we pulled into the land, we saw men and women digging. They were digging as couples; presumably they are a family unit. We knew this would be different than an American construction site. When Anne asked the construction consultant how they would get their heavy equipment in without a real road, he chuckled and said there wouldn’t be any heavy equipment. All the digging and moving of earth would be done by hand.
What I was not prepared for was the number of workers, the high quality of their work, and the speed with which they were digging holes. These hardy people live tough lives. They work most of the day (with an hour or two break for lunch), live on site, and travel from job to job, setting up housekeeping wherever they can earn a decent wage. Of necessity, their children travel with them. These kids do not attend school and will have few options when they grow up to progress beyond the lot of their parents. Life is good for the moment, however, since the enlightened company in charge of the construction pays more than the average daily wage of 120 rupees for men and 80 rupees for women ($2.60 and $1.80 respectively).
The plight of migrant workers in India is lamentable but some are trying to change it. One is Padma Venkataraman, RSO board member. By virtue of both caste and political pedigree, Padma wields considerable influence, but she exercises it quietly outside the bounds of India’s raucous political spectrum. It was impressive to watch her grill the foreman about what he was paying the laborers and offer to make arrangements for teaching the children. After watching Padma I knew that this would be a memorable day. We had 6-8 hours of driving left and she would be a perfect traveling companion to help me make sense of India.
After leaving “The Land” Padma explained to us that early in her father’s career he a minister of labor. Her father’s experience left her with a soft spot for the country’s migrant laborers. She explained to Dax and I that she is part of a group that has already gathered 100,000+ signatures on behalf of the children of migrant workers in an attempt to get a law passed allowing them to attend public schools wherever their parents are working. Her concern for the laborer is likely a legacy of her father’s first public office, but her concern for all of India stems from his lifetime of service. Sri R. Venkatarman spent 60 years in public service, with the last 10 being split between the offices of Vice President and President of India. During much of his time, Padma lived abroad. On her trips back to India she began to focus her concern on the poorest of the poor–the lepers (the politically correct term is leprosy-affected).
These were the people we were on our way to meet. During our drive Padma explained to us, “Those with leprosy could live in government housing but many chose not to. If they live in a home provided by the government, it is the property of the government. The government kicks out family members when they reach adulthood and the edifice returns to the government when the occupant dies.” For these people there is an option B. India still has homesteading laws. Padma continued, “If after 20 years the government hasn’t kicked you off the land it is yours.” For those with nothing, a 20 year wait for a homestead is a great deal. These people would rather live independently on the fringes of society with the hope of leaving their family an inheritance rather than living off government assistance and leaving them homeless. The problem with leaving the government housing is they also lose all support: no medical care, no pension, no assistance of any kind. It’s a difficult existence. Most are forced to leave their homes for two to three weeks each month in search of money. They board busses to the cities where they beg by day and sleep on the streets by night. Once they have enough money in their pockets for return bus fare and a small supply of food, they return to their homestead only to repeat the cycle the following month. With few options for employment or education, many people’s children and grandchildren get caught up in the cycle as well. With this intro, we arrived at our first leper colony.
At the colony we were greeted by smiling faces. People made their way out of their houses; some walked, some crawled, and one man came out in his hand pump bicycle. Padma was obviously their hero. They set up plastic chairs and gathered to hold a village council. The visitors sat on the chairs while the residents sat cross-legged on the ground. I noticed most of them had bandages around stumps where once there had been feet. Some had missing fingers and a few had sunken faces or blind eyes, complications of the later stages of leprosy. At this point everything was in Tamil, so the conversation was lost to me. I wandered around and took pictures (all of which unfortunately disappeared thanks to an iPhoto bug!). Dax sat in on the whole council and wondered why two of the men were trying to be louder than the other in getting their point across. I explained that there is no reason a council in a village of leprosy-affected people would be any different than a high-powered board meeting or a subdivision homeowners’ meeting in the US. Men will be men, and some think strength comes from being louder, faster, or even crueler than the rest. The “boss” at this colony was just such a man. Padma told us later that he would need to “go” because his desire to rule the others would prevent them from progressing. After the council we toured the village peanut and lentil farm. We walked and listened to them speak Tamil. My curiosity was peaked, and I was eager to get a translation from Padma.
Back in the van, she explained her efforts to transform leprosy-affected communities such as this one through microcredit. With the help of Padma’s microloans, the colony set a goal of eradicating begging and becoming self-sufficient. The peanut farm is their second attempt. The villagers used their first set of loans to buy cows, whose milk they expected to sell for a profit. The colony proved too far from potential customers, however, and the venture failed. By specializing in a less perishable and more profitable crop, they believe the peanut venture will succeed. The hope is to provide each family 2000 rupees (less than $40) each month from the profits of the farm. This will be enough for them to stay at home. I asked Padma if they would still have to repay the loans for the cows, and she said they would. Many microlenders boast 98-100% repayment rates, but she explained that working with the colonies requires a little more patience. Given their physical and social limitations, the leprosy-affected require leniency on some of their monthly payments, but they will eventually repay the full amount. She then told us about other colonies that are further down the road to self-sufficiency. One colony sells cows and goats; another specializes in art; others, in states with more water, farm fish. Some of the colonies are now indistinguishable from normal villages. Perhaps a year or two from now the peanut farmers will be another success story.
Before we got to the next colony, we made a quick stop to purchase bags of rice and beans. (A rice shortage ended up preventing us from getting the 75 kilo bag for this colony, but we did order it to be delivered to them in 3 or 4 days’ time). The second colony was much smaller and its inhabitants older and more frail. However, their lives are much better. Each lives in a concrete building donated by a church and receives about 400 rupees ($9) in assistance. Rising Star Outreach periodically provides rice and beans as well. Earlier in the year, the plan had been for this colony to lift itself up by its bootstraps like the others, but something went wrong. The inhabitants received loans to purchase goats, but they either didn’t have the initiative or were unable to take care of their goats. The abundance of charity has made their lives comfortable and they are content with things as they are. WIth this relatively well off population, Padma explained, they will probably not try to set up another venture. As the people age and “expire,” this colony will probably just fade away.
The hope is that leprosy will fade away as well. India has reduced the number of leprosy-affected people from 500,000 30 years ago to about 250,000 people today. The disease is easily curable for a ridiculously low price (less than $3 per person) but the ravaging effects it has on the body if not treated in the early stages cannot be reversed: fingers, feet, and noses cannot be reattached and eyesight cannot be restored. For those who catch it early, it leaves no more damage than the chicken pox. Some of the kids we are working with have had it, but you’d never know which ones.
Leprosy is no longer a death sentence or a ticket to a lifetime of dependence. People like Padma provide the leprosy-affected with the boost they need to take control of their lives and become productive members of a still shunning society. I am glad Dax and I had the chance to watch Padma in action. She is a powerful example that when one person turns a life of privilege into a life of service they can benefit thousands of people and impact society for generations.
Padma is on the far right.