03/18/2006, 00.00
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Lepers protest Gujarat decision to stop sisters running hospital

The sick people fear they will once again have to face marginalization and rejection. The government says this is but an administrative decision that does not arise from Hindutva ideological motives.

Ahmedabad (AsiaNews/UCAN) – The nationalist Hindu government of Gujarat has decided to stop sisters from working in a hospital for lepers, terminating a contract that has lasted for more than 60 years.

But the decision has been opposed by patients. Many of the sick people said they will follow the sisters wherever they go. "They are everything for us," Babban Sitapur. "Not even our family members take such care of us."

The Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate took up the administration of the Leprosy Hospital in 1949. Gujarat then was part of Bombay state, which was later divided into Maharashtra and Gujarat. The government invited the nuns to run the hospital in Ahmedabad after many criticisms labelling it one of the country's worst-run institutions for leprosy patients.

The government used to renew the five-year contract routinely, but things began to change in 2001, soon after a government led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state.

Fr Cedric Prakash, the Jesuit who helped the sisters to renew the contract in 2001, said they managed to do so only with "great difficulty". Already then, he could discern what the government intentions were. The renewal of the contact became a "vague and remote possibility". On 21 February, the government announced it would not renew the contract with the sisters, which expires on 1 April.

The hospital stretches across a 10-hectare plot of government-owned land and houses some 40 inpatients while treating hundreds of outpatients. The nuns' residence is on the premises.

Fr Prakash said the decision to send the sisters away came from the state Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Health Minister Ashok Bhatt, both known for their anti-Christian stance.

As news of the government decision spread, the patients gathered under a tree to discuss what to do. "We will go to the government and plead," said one of them, but another waved him down with his bandaged hand and said, "They will not allow us to even enter the compound."

Joseph John, a Catholic patient, suggested they go on a hunger strike, but that too was turned down. Sister Karuna, who is in charge of the hospital, stood at a distance; she said what the patients feared most was the discrimination they may face in contrast to the welcome they experienced within the premises. "People come here hesitatingly, but would not leave this place afterward. Back home they are hated, isolated and some are even thrown out."

Chinga Powar came from a government hospital in neighbouring Maharashtra. In that hospital, he said, doctors would "not even come near us. The nurses would give out tablets in a plastic bag tied to a stick. The toilets were never cleaned, because lepers used it. We were treated worse than animals."

Eventually someone told him about the Ahmedabad hospital. "I didn't know the place, but I knew it was managed by Christian nuns, which was enough inspiration to come here," he continued. One night he left the Maharashtra hospital. He covered all his wounds, used a shawl to hide his face and rode in the back of a bus to Ahmedabad. He later helped two other patients from the hospital in Maharashtra to come to Ahmedabad.

Cinga Powar said he would not know where to go if the nuns left. He said the best thing to do would to request the government to allow the nuns to stay.

Minaben Patel, 81 years and a Hindu, has worked with the sisters for the past 50 years. She said the "real aim" of not renewing the nuns' contract could be to take over the land. Thanks to the development of the city, the value of the property has increased. She said there was no one ready to replace the sisters.  "The government may gain some land, but they will lose these wardens of the poor permanently," she said.

The secretary of the state's Health Department, S.R. Rao, said the decision not to renew the contract was "purely administrative". The government owned the hospital, he continued, and was thus free "to decide whom to hand over the administration".

The Health Minister said the government had plans to expand the institution's services and the termination of the sisters' contract had nothing to do with ideology.

The contract stipulated that the sisters should shall not "do any preaching of the Bible or carry on any proselytizing activities among patients of the hospital as well as on the premises". The sisters said they have never violated these stipulations.

Almost a year ago the government permitted them to start a house for HIV-positive patients in the same compound. Christians saw this decision as an expression of the government's appreciation for the sisters' service. Today, some HIV-positive people live in the hospital and around 500 receive medicines and treatment.

So far, the sisters have not yet received any official communication from the district health commissioner. They have only received some information from the Health and Family Welfare Department. (www.ucan.com)

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