CHAMPA (CHHATTISGARH): A white half-sleeved vest covering his body and a dhoti wrapped around his legs, a frail 83-year-old figure walks with slow, a little wobbly, steps, enquiring about the well being of everyone who greets him. With his right legs partially paralysed and a damaged right eye, he hardly fits into the image of a tireless crusader against leprosy.
But that’s Damodar Ganesh Bapat, who has dedicated his life to the treatment and service of leprosy patients at Bhartiya Kushta Nivarak Sangh (BKNS) in Janjgir-Champa district for past four-and-a half decades.
Youngest among three sons of a railway employee in Maharashtra’s Amravati district, Bapat shifted to Jashpur in Chhattisgarh after his father’s demise and got associated with RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. During a visit to BKNS, Bapat, impressed with the work being done by late Sadashiv Katre, made up his mind to devote the rest of his life to fighting leprosy and the associated stigma. He joined BKNS as its secretary in 1972 and has since been a guiding light at the ashram.
At present, there are around 135 leprosy patients living in the ashram, which is spread across 85 acres. It has a school, a hostel, computer and sewing training centres, a 20-bedded dispensary and various skill-oriented tasks to engage the patients who make mats, blackboard chalks, coirs and manures etc.
“Leprosy still remains public health problem. We admit people after medical confirmation,” Bapat said. The number of women patients is twice that of men. Around 400 leprosy patients have so far been discharged after treatment.
The ashram has an effective multi-drug therapy sponsored by health department to cure leprosy. Patients’ compliance to treatment schedule is monitored. While a government aid of Rs 600 per patient per month is given, the ashram also solicits donations and financial aids.
Bapat is nonchalant about the Padma Shri awarded to him. “Being born in the land of Bharat is itself an honour for me. The Padma Shri — the government gave me, so I accepted it,” he said. He said he had never applied for any award or public recognition. “I am told some of my well-wishers at times do it without my knowledge.”
The BKNS has received several awards in the past. But Bapat says, “My real happiness lies in serving the mankind since I firmly believe that humanity is the only caste and religion one has. It doesn’t matter how many awards you have won as long as you persist with your goodness and don’t forsake your values.”