The series of black-and-white pictures on the walls of a one-room ground floor house in the congested Tahirpur area of North-East Delhi tell visitors the moving tale of a young high school boy growing up in West Bengal who was abandoned by his own family after contracting leprosy and was then forced to run away from home.
The young boy – S. K. Dutta – left Bengal over five decades ago to make Delhi his home and complete strangers (afflicted with the same disease) his family here.
Without adequate education/skill or contacts and completely alone and new in the city, Dutta was forced to beg to feed himself when he first came here. Soon he was arrested under the Anti-Begging Act and sent to Home for Leprosy and TB, where he was cured after aggressive free treatment in the Delhi Government-run health facility.
Life then started afresh for this young man, who went on to marry and have children of his own and has since also become a grandfather. But neither Dutta, nor his immediate family ever left Tahipur, the country’s largest colony for people afflicted with leprosy.
Several decades after he was cured, Dutta and his family continue to fight for something much stronger, crippling and disfiguring than leprosy – the stigma attached to it. Dutta died last month in his home and is mourned and remembered by thousands of leprosy-afflicted persons and their family members across India who speak of the work done by him to ensure a life of dignity for his people.
His wife Rekha says, “Dutta (as I always addressed him) was passionate about his work for the uplift of those afflicted with leprosy. Even after he got cured he refused to leave Tahirpur. He would tell me that unlike other diseases society doesn’t allow a leprosy-afflicted person back into society, especially if he is poor and not well educated. He would say that this (Tahirpur) was his home, these people here were his family. ‘Tahirpur is my heaven and hell’ was his constant refrain.”
In 2005, Dutta was awarded for his outstanding contribution to the leprosy sector. He had worked to provide proper houses, sanitation and drinking water facilities, identification cards, and most importantly accessibility to government schemes for those affected with leprosy in the Tahirpur area. He also adopted five girls of leprosy affected patients, in order to look after them and give them proper education.
“He believed that education and employment were the cornerstones in ensuring long-term acceptance of people who were afflicted with leprosy,” says his wife. “All his life he fought for social acceptance of those who had contracted the disease. But leprosy continues to be a curse because of the social stigma attached to it.” And it is this stigma that those living in Tahirpur find the most arduous to do away with.