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Damodar Bapat: A life less ordinary

LEPROSY, WHICH is known as kushtha rog or maharog in Hindi, is a disease that leads not just to physical deformity but also erodes a person?s confidence. Restoring such lives with dignity is no easy task but Damodar Ganesh Bapat, who is not even a doctor, has been doing just that for over three decades now.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2006 15:08 IST

LEPROSY, WHICH is known as kushtha rog or maharog in Hindi, is a disease that leads not just to physical deformity but also erodes a person’s confidence. Restoring such lives with dignity is no easy task but Damodar Ganesh Bapat, who is not even a doctor, has been doing just that for over three decades now.

Clearing misconceptions about leprosy in the society, living with patients, eating food cooked by them and sharing the habitat including water resources with these people are part of the work exemplified by Bapat in a small village Katrenagar in Champa (district Janjgir in Chhattisgarh).

“When we started our work, we were not allowed to enter buses. People did not even talk to us, as they feared that others would suspect their family has a leprosy patient, which would prove troublesome in finding a bride,” Bapat told Hindustan Times.

Chhattisgarh and eastern Orissa have had large number of leprosy patients always. Hence the need was felt to open a service organisation in that remote area where the poor and ignorant people would get shelter after nearly being ostracised by family and society.

In 1974, Bapat was inspired by Dr Sadashiv Katre who was working in the field of leprosy through Bharatiya Kushtha Nivarak Sangh, Champa. He was appointed as secretary of the organisation in 1975 and is single-handedly responsible for its overall growth.

Bapat’s team today has 17 full time volunteers, who look after nearly 160 inmates of the organisation. After years of hard work, Chhattisgarh Government has started a grant for the organisation, which, the 71-year-old Bapat claims, “does not face any financial crunch as of today. Earlier, it was difficult, but over the years the awareness level about such work is increasing and Samaritans do come forward now to help us regularly.”

The rehabilitation of persons affected by leprosy is done on two levels. First, of course, providing them shelter and making them self-reliant as even today, most of them are abandoned by their immediate relatives and forced to beg for survival.

Equally important is the second step wherein organisations such as Bapat’s rehabilitate them psychologically. Not all offspring of leprosy patients are afflicted with the same disease. So the onus to look after health and education of such healthy children is another task done by Bapat and his team. A `Sushil Balak Grah’ run by the organisation looks after 150 such healthy children, students of Class 1 to 12. The organisation also runs two crèches for about 65 children.

It owns 73 acres of land, wherein rice, vegetables and fruit trees etc are grown, making them self-reliant in case of food. IDBI has financed a vocational training school where the inmates weave durries and mats, make ropes, carry out welding etc.

The youngsters, less in number, mostly go home or to some job after they are treated but the elders are not sent away from the sanatorium. “Even today, they fear that their families would not accept them. Hence we have started a `Vriddhashram’ (home for aged) here itself and look after these people,” Bapat adds.

The most important continuous work is spreading awareness and removing misconceptions in the society about the disease. “With sustained awareness, we have been able to improve the scenario a little but a utopian situation where every person with leprosy can be treated from his home would take may be some 20-25 years more,” he claims.

Born in Amravati district of Maharashtra, Bapat completed his graduation from Nagpur. After his father’s death, he tried his hand at small-time jobs and even tried to run a small enterprise. Highly inspired by Swami Vivekanand literature, the call from within — to do something for the society - would not let him sit quiet. This led him to join Balasaheb Deshpande in his work at the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in the early seventies. Bapat has been an RSS pracharak since 1971.

Starting as a teacher in the backward tribal area, Bapat got a chance to know first hand the problems of such regions. And after joining the leprosy work there was no looking back.. Few of the other awards received by Bapat are Vivekananda Seva Puraskar instituted by Shri Badabazar Kumar Sabha Pustakalaya, Kolkata; Bhaurao Deoras Seva Smruti Puraskar by Bhaurao
Deoras Foundation and Chhattisgarh Rajya Alankar by Chhattisgarh state.

(The tenth national `Devi Ahilyabai National Award’ instituted by Shri Ahilyotsav Samiti, Indore, would be conferred upon Damodar Ganesh Bapat (Champa, Chhattisgarh) on September 12 at Ravindra Natya Grah here for his service in the field of rehabilitation, education and health of persons affected with leprosy apart from making them self-reliant.)