New Delhi, Jan 27 (IANS) India has 13 million people who have been cured of leprosy, but they still find it hard to get a job due to the stigma attached to the disease. This, despite the government making provisions for their employment, health experts and activists say.
According to the experts, people cured of leprosy are covered under the Disability Act and get one percent reservation in government jobs. In spite of this, the majority of those cured are unable to benefit.
"Stigma is the major cause for such people not being able to benefit," Rajive Raturi, who heads the Disability Rights Initiative (DRI) of Human Rights Law Network, a nationwide collective of lawyers and social workers, told IANS.
He said when a person who has been cured of leprosy applies for a government job, he has to produce the medical certificate. But their candidature gets rejected when it is found that they suffered from leprosy.
"They are often rejected due to the fact that as soon as the doctors or any person concerned sees leprosy as the cause of the disability, they ignore the applicants," Raturi said, adding most of the people are thus forced to beg on the streets or at religious places.
Another activist said that such people are already in such a precarious condition that they don't know where to go for redressal.
According to Vinita Shanker, executive director, Sasakawa India Leprosy Foundation, there needs to be a special category for former leprosy patients as they have more health-related issues like recurrent joint pains and vision problems after their cure.
"In India, under the Disability Act, leprosy-cured persons are categorised as those with loco-motor disability. This is a deterrence as visual disability is a major fallout of the disease," Shanker told IANS. The charitable trust was set up by Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, in 2006.
According to Shanker, Sasakawa devoted all his professional life fighting leprosy not only in Japan but all over the world.
"We have to fight stigma from society and change mindsets. These people are as capable of working as any healthy person," Shanker said.
In order to correct this anomaly, a group of NGOs working in this field had petitioned parliament in 2008 seeking amendment in certain laws, including the Disability Act, which they consider as discriminatory against people cured of leprosy.
According to P.K. Gopal, president of the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement (IDEA), India, which is supposed to have eliminated leprosy seven years ago, still records the highest number of fresh cases globally.
Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. It is primarily a disease of the skin and nerves. Skin lesions are the primary external sign. Left untreated, leprosy can be progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
According to the World Health Organisation, 65 percent of all new cases of leprosy globally are from India.
The union health ministry's latest data shows that between April, 2010, and March, 2011, India recorded 126,800 fresh cases of leprosy of which 12, 463 were children under the age of 15. Around 4,000 of these patients had disabilities due to leprosy.
Last year, 127,000 new cases were detected in India.
India currently has about 54 percent of all the new leprosy cases in the world, followed by Brazil with about 17 percent, then Indonesia with about seven percent.
"Despite the fact that 13 million people have been cured so far, people still attach a stigma to it," Gopal, who himself is leprosy-cured, told IANS.
The petition made to parliament included certain other discriminatory laws like the Hindu, Muslim and Christian Marriage Acts which give a right of divorce to a person whose spouse has leprosy.
Among other countries reporting more than 1,000 new cases in 2006 are Angola, Bangladesh, China, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
It is estimated that probably at least three million people are living with some permanent disability due to leprosy, although the exact figure is not available.
Gopal said the government has to do something, like providing them vocational training, to stop these people from returning to begging.
"They are needed to be treated equally and should not be subjected to discrimination. Government should come out with some training programmes for them so that they stop begging," Gopal added.
(Sreeparna Chakrabarty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)