Rome (AsiaNews) - "The first time we opened the clinic for lepers in Taloja, more than 200 people came in three hours. The three doctors didn't know what to do." Fr. Carlo Torriani is a 74-year-old priest of the PIME and a missionary in India since 1969. For him, leprosy patients, their lives, their sufferings, have occupied his days for 40 years.
With its more than 100,000 cases, India is the country with the largest number of people affected by what medicine calls "Hansen's disease." In 2005, the World Health Organization declared the country free from leprosy, discovering only one case for every 10,000 inhabitants. "But the statistics are misleading," Fr. Torriani explains, "because it is true that the number of the sick has diminished greatly since the 1980's, but there are still pockets where the disease persists: in the Bainganwadi slum in Mumbai, we discovered 19 cases out of 10,000 people in 15 days. And then, once a a sick person is declared healed he is removed from the statistics, but he remains amputated, without a job, discriminated against, and the charts don't show any of this."
The world day for those sick with leprosy, organized for January 25 by the Italian association Friends of Raoul Follerau, is dedicated to India. The theme chosen for the 56th edition is "Saving the beauty of man from leprosy." Fr. Torriani tells one of the many stories that he has witnessed, to explain what this slogan signifies.
"We had just opened our second clinic, and a father came with his 12-year-old son in his arms, he could not walk. They had discovered that he had leprosy at the age of two, and had kept him at home for 10 years without ever letting him leave, without ever letting him go to school. He had gangrene in one of his feet, and we immediately had to send him to the general hospital to have it amputated - a few years later, they had to amputate the leg up to the knee - he was in an appalling condition." On that day, Iqbal entered into the life of Fr. Torriani: "He spoke only Maharathi and Urdu, because this is what he had heard at home. We began teaching him Hindi (editor's note: the official language of the country, and the one most widely spoken), and then English, and now he even speaks a little Italian. We cared for him. I gave him an electric typewriter, and he, with his fingers amputated to the knuckle, learned to use it. Then he took a computer course. Now he directs the public telephone office in our village."
Fr. Torriani lives 40 kilometers from Mumbai, in Taloja, a Muslim village immersed in an overwhelmingly Hindu area. In 1984, he began an experience there of complete sharing with about 40 people, most of them elderly, some of them terminally sick, others healed, all marked by leprosy. "There is a clinic, a farm where we produce food for the needs of all. But there is also an ashram, a place of retreat and meditation according to Indian tradition. We named it Swarga Dwar, which means 'Gate of Heaven'. Our day begins with working together. We spend two hours in the field, each next to the other, from 7:30 until 9:30, in order to understand that caste distinctions do not exist. Working the land is for the 'outcastes': we all do this together. We eat together, sharing a single kitchen, we pray together."
Taloja is the latest chapter in the missionary's work. Before coming to the village outside of Mumbai, Fr. Torriani founded an association that works in the city slums, and is now directed by Indians. "Two times a week, I go to the Lok Seva Sangam (LSS) [editor's note: society for social service] to see how things are going. Now, it is moving forward on its own. It comprises a territory of about 2 million inhabitants. We do work preventing, diagnosing, and treating leprosy."
The LSS is taking care of the situation and working together with the government authorities, but this has not always been the case.
Fr. Torriani recounts that at the beginning the work was "tolerated" by the authorities. In 1981, he became an Indian citizen in order to avoid deportation. "This is what happened: the people were gathering in some areas of the city and setting up slums, which gradually grew larger. Then the government decided that the area was not suitable for building, and knocked everything down. The poor found somewhere else to go. The demolition almost always took place with no warning. Once, it was even done on Christmas day. My legal citizenship is connected to one of these demolitions in 1978. They had to build a highway bridge, so they had decided to clear the slums out of the area. It was just the latest transfer for large numbers of poor people, and all of our clinics. We went to the collector [editor's note: responsible for the demolition] in order to ask for an alternative, and we obtained the promise that those who could document that they had been there since 1975 would be assigned an official plot of land. No sooner did we return home than we saw that the demolition had already begun: no one had any documents to certify how long he had been there. One woman approached me and told me that they had begun to take away our belongings, including a desk where I kept some money. I began to follow the truck onto which they had loaded it, and found myself followed by all the people who turned my pursuit of the truck into a Garibaldi-type assault! Security forces arrived: they beat us, and took us to the police station. They threatened to deport me. The only thing that stopped them was that a professor who knew us went to the public housing minster and explained that through our work with the lepers, we had conducted a census of all the inhabitants. In the end, they let me go, the minister stopped the demolition, and we were able to document who had been there since 1975 and who had not."
Poverty, and leprosy even more so, are an insurmountable barrier. "There is constant discrimination, it takes so much effort to keep moving forward," Fr. Torriani says. "For example, when we tried to send Iqbal to school, they told us no and didn't even want to send us a teacher. Then one day, they came to ask us to give them a hand repairing the roof of the school, and I told them: 'I'll fix the roof myself, but you're going to take all of my kids'. And that's what happened. And now, near Taloja they have given a plot of land to an NGO that takes care of street kids, and our kids play cricket against theirs."