04/29/2013, 00.00
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Karnataka: Hindu nationalists use lepers to win elections

by Nirmala Carvalho
The Indian state goes to the polls 5 May. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to be re-elected by getting the minority vote. Fr George Kannanthanam, director of a Catholic centre dedicated to the rehabilitation of lepers, talks about the party's phoney help to the weakest sections of society, about money it promised but never allocated as well as the facilities it shut down.

Bangalore (AsiaNews) - In view of the upcoming elections in Karnataka, set for 5 May, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to win over voters from social and religious minorities through pledges of economic help. However, for Fr George Kannanthanam, who has served the most marginalised for 25 years, they are but promises since "not even 2 per cent of our funds come from the state government".

Over the past five years, Karnataka has been governed by the BJP, a party known in India for its open support for ultra-nationalist Hindu groups responsible for violence against minorities.

Fr George, a Claretian clergyman, has led the Sumanahalli (Village of good-hearted people) Society, a Catholic centre founded in Bangalore in 1977 dedicated to the rehabilitation of lepers, as well as people living with HIV, the disabled, orphans, street children and young offenders.

The priest, whose work has been recognised by numerous awards in recent years, is critical of certain recent statements made by prominent BJP figures.

One of them is N.B. Aboobakkar, a former president of the Karnataka Minorities Development Corporation (KMDC) and permanent invitee of the BJP National Minority Morcha.

On 23 April in Mangalore, Aboobakkar claimed that the KMDC, under a BJP administration, spent more than 13 million rupees (US$ 240,000) helping approximately 1.4 million people over five years.

However, Fr George noted, "until last year, the government provided only 6 rupees (11 cents US) per day per patient, to pay for food, medical expenses and hospitalisation. Now, "the contribution "has risen to 15 rupees (28 cents US) per day. Yet, 35 centres for people with HIV/AIDS run by NGOs have been closed by the government, leaving the poorest of the poor alone and without hope."

"We hope the next government will adopt policies, programmes and laws aimed at the weaker sections of society," the clergyman said. "It must be sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable, allocate appropriate budgets to the various sections, and not indulge in useless spending."

The Sumanahalli Society was founded in 1977 when the Chief Minister of Karnataka, Devarja Urs, asked the local Christian community to take care of lepers who lived at the government's Beggars' Colony because the authorities were unable to care for them. In 33 years, the facility treated more than 15,000 leprosy patients. Today, it is home to 120 lepers.

As the number of leprosy cases dropped, the organisation begun to care for people living with HIV (30), with disabilities (30), orphans (45), street children (50) and young offenders (40).

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