Friday, 5 April 2013

Friends of Vellore

The Friends of Vellore are to be found all over the globe - people who have worked at CMC Hospital and College, or who were trained here, or people like us who are so impressed by what is happening in Vellore.

This link will take you to the Spring 2013 newsletter. There is an article on the Rehab Mela we attended in February, and talks of developments planned to enhance CMC provision.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Incredible India!

Just four of us visited the Taj Mahal on our last full day in India. Sue didn't join us, as she was scheduled to visit it a week later with her friend.

Getting to the Taj this time was very different. The road, the Yamuna Expressway, from Delhi to Agra was amazing! It's a six-lane toll road, built by the Jaypee Construction and Hydropower Group to create a corridor of development between New Delhi and the East.

The road was formally-opened last August, and already the Buddh International Motor-Racing Circuit and Stadium is up-and-running. This will be followed soon by many other stadia for various international sporting events, and accommodation for those who are benefiting from the way India's economy is going (which is not that large a percentage of the population of India). If you didn't know the other side of India (that's most of it) and only saw this road, the nice bits of New Delhi, and The Taj Mahal, you'd be forgiven for thinking that India is all that it is cracked-up to be.

But India is not like this.

"Incredible India"

.... I saw it on a poster at the entrance to the show-piece Dilli Haat Market in New Delhi, the Indian Tourist Board's own market, ensuring that tourists leave with a bit of marketable India to take home with them.

The Staff and Students we met at Gurukul Theological Seminary cited "Incredible India" as an appropriate slogan for the Government and the Tourist Board to use. Through Indian eyes, India is indeed incredible. Development in India has most-certainly arrived, but it has come at great cost for most, benefiting only a few.

The Government is most-certainly incredible in the depths it has plummeted in corruption. We found out at Karigiri how the government had "massaged" statistics regarding leprosy, giving the impression that the disease had been eradicated, so justifying a "no spend" on leprosy care and research, when the reality is that leprosy is more-prevalent in India than anywhere else in the world, with more cases each year.

Perhaps even-more disturbing was the Government pronouncement that hardly-any wage-earners  in India fall below the minimum. That India has a complex system of minimum wages,which are not applicable to all workers and set up often arbitrarily by different authorities, making it difficult to monitor and enforce, makes a farce of it all.

It has been said that the Government minimum -wage figure is as low as 24 rupees a day. Not even the lowest of the lowly-paid worker in India is likely to fall beneath that level. That is not to say that the average wage for the majority is actually an adequate amount for people to ensure a basic standard of living including health-care, dignity, comfort and education, and to provide for any necessary contingency that might arise.Bearing in mind that a litre of petrol now costs 72 rupees, then a worker on the minimum wage will have to work about three months to fill a tank with petrol! "Incredible India" - where the rich are becoming much, much richer, and the poor, of course, the vast majority of Indian citizens, are not. India is incredible only for a few.

The challenge to today's Indian Christians? To set an example of integrity, where there is no place for corruption, and where such corruption in high places is bravely and courageously questioned and brought to account. Indian Christians are called to be "Good Samaritans" - people on the margins of Indian Society ministering where they can with whatever resources they can find to become good neighbours. We ourselves were challenged to look after our own neighbours, and not to feel we had to "do good" out of a sense of guilt (because we have so much, or because of former colonial ties).

When we asked, for what should we pray as far as the Church of today in India is concerned, the answer was "for honesty" - at government level, and even in the Church; and "for human rights" -for Dalits, for women (again, even in the Church women find it hard to feel that equality exists), and for the many, many poor in "Incredible India".

Touching the Untouchable.....

Sunday 24th February is well-over a fortnight ago now; the day we had arranged to meet with theological students at Gurukul Theological Seminary in Chennai. Why meet with them?Because twelve years ago, on my first visit, I and a small group of people from "Christians Aware" were taken to the Seminary by the charismatic former Bishop of Madras, Bishop Azariah. It was most-impressive to see just how Gurukul College was engaged with some pretty tough issues, including the one which was highest on Bishop Azariah's agenda, the place of Untouchables in 21st Century Indian Society.

At that time, Bishop Azariah was at the forefront of Dalit Liberation, and he brought to the campaign a Christian perspective. "Dalit" is a  Sanskrit word, used by untouchables in India to describe themselves. It means "crushed", "broken", and is how the Dalits see themselves, people who have been oppressed, treated as sub-human, for far too long. My first visit to India in 2001 followed the United Nations Organisation "World Conference against Racism,Racial Discrimination  Xenophobia and Related Intolerances", which took place in Durban, South Africa,in August and September that year. Bishop Azariah, a Dalit himself, was a key-speaker at the Durban Conference, where he emphasized  that apartheid, now a thing of the past in South Africa, was still a present reality in 21st century India. Bearing in mind that there are some 170 million people classed as Dalit or Tribal out of a total population of 1.4 billion people, then the scale of this problem can be better understood. It is remarkable that more is not said about this, especially in view of the "hype" of India as a developing world leader.

The Dalits, along with "Tribal" peoples, are detailed under Indian law as being of  "Scheduled Caste" status, which, thanks to Gandhi, and since independence in 1947,was to give them significant rights and entitlements to make up for the lack of such over the last two or so thousand years.

That's the theory.

In practice, Dalits and "Tribals" are still treated as less-than-human, and the rights that might be theirs under law are in reality out of the grasp of most concerned. That would appear to be true now in 2013, just as is was in 2001, just as it was in 1947.........

The presentation given by Bishop Azariah has been documented in the Conference Report as follows:

"The system of ‘Hidden apartheid’ based on caste practices of distinction, exclusion and restrictions denies Dalits’ enjoyment of their economic, social, political, cultural and religious rights, exposing them to all forms of violence and manifests itself in the segregation of housing settlements and cemeteries, segregation in tea stalls (‘two-cup’ system), denial of access to common drinking water, restaurants, places of worship, restrictions on marriage and other insidious measures all of which inhibit their development as equals."

The question we brought to the staff and students of Gurukul was "What about the Dalits now? Is this still as big a human rights issue as it was in the 20th Century? In our recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity material was prepared by South Indian Christians, expressing concern still for the plight of Dalits. What should we be reporting back to the UK in this regard?"

To begin with, people in the room seemed reticent to answer this. The reason became clear as we progressed. 80% of the students meeting with us were Dalits. A similar number, 80% of Indian Christians, are Dalits. It is significant that Christ's message of reaching out to those who are broken (Luke chapter 4) really means something in India. It is the "broken", the "crushed", who find something significant in what Christ has to say to them. Some of those present felt that even the Church was not above displaying an attitude of casteism; that it was not always as exempt as it should have been, and that the task ahead of the Church in this regard has a long, long way to go. Others amongst the students talked more-encouragingly of the way in which Dalits were empowering each other and themselves; that things were improving simply because people were determined that they should. The Dalit problem will remain a problem for many years to come, but Dalit determination and resolve to rise above it all is evident.

This Dalit Champion, Bishop Azariah, died nearly a year ago, but there are plenty of good, informed, faithful folk here, who will keep his torch alight to bring this darkest of situations to an end.

Shanthigramam Leprosy Village. Pattu and her son.

Karigiri Hospital

The Schieffellin Institute of Health Research and Leprosy Centre at Karigiri (which is squeezed down to "SIHRLC" for short, and is situated near Vellore), was founded to care for leprosy patients in and around the Vellore District  and to set up a research institution to probe into the many problems of leprosy.

The Institute was named after an American, William J Schieffelin, who was at the time president of the American leprosy Mission, which funded the building project. Dr Ida Scudder, who had been the driving-force and foundress (in 1900) of the vast Christian Medical College and Hospital in nearby-Vellore, was guest-of-honour at a ceremony to mark Karigiri's foundation in 1952, and the buildings were completed and opened in 1955.

Since that time SIHRLC has treated thousands of leprosy patients, carried-out state-of-the-art research to understand the disease, and trained people at all levels in the management of leprosy. The top man of all time in this field, Doctor Paul Brand, spent a lot of his time at Karigiri and at CMC, and did much to further important work and research in the field of leprosy treatment.

Leprosy eradicated? Hardly!

We were thrilled to be able to stay at SIHRLC Karigiri Hospital Guest House for nine nights during our tour. We were given the chance to have a look around the hospital itself on the first full day of our stay, and were able to pick up on its related activities throughout our stay, including the Shanthigramam Leprosy Village which we support. 

The Hospital seemed busier than when we were last there five years ago. The impression given to the West, by people "in the know", is that leprosy is not only curable, but that it is declining. What became abundantly clear to us as we went around Karigiri was that leprosy has NOT been eradicated , particularly in India. The Leprosy Mission, and other similar organisations are giving less support than previously, simply because it is believed that leprosy is now “a thing of the past”. It is not. 

Just six years ago, a lot of the routine leprosy care had been "shifted" to an outpatients department in Katpadi itself, and at that time the hospital at Karigiri was very much quieter. This has been viewed since by the Hospital Directorate as a retrograde move. 

Certainly, it was a step forward to take the care of leprosy patients into the community, which in itself showed a gradual understanding by the general public of the nature of the illness. But what it also meant was that those who cared for leprosy patients found they had to travel between two sites, rather than be based in one place. Thus an awful lot of time was wasted in travel, and resources were spread more-thinly as a result. 

The hope had been to to open-up the hospital to the care of diabetic patients. Some of the problems experienced by leprosy sufferers are common to diabetics also, as diabetes in India is fast-becoming an epic problem. There is still room for this to go on at Karigiri, as well as concentrating the effort in leprosy care back on the one site. 

Leprosy sufferers, if they seek treatment early enough, can do a lot to halt the spread of the disease in their own bodies, but still nobody knows how leprosy is contracted, and when it is, it can take up to ten years for the symptoms to show. Given that it is a disease which cuts people off from their families and friends, then a leprosy sufferer is not going to be in a hurry to mention it to others.

130,000 Indians are diagnosed with leprosy every year – more than in all other countries put together. It's partly because the country's population is so huge but also, campaigners say, because the Indian government, along with international donors, are neglecting the fight against the disease. Hundreds of thousands of Indians suffer from leprosy and its debilitating after-effects.

The Indian Government announced it had eliminated leprosy in 2005. According to a target set by the World Health Organisation, countries can announce 'elimination' when there are fewer than one case for every 10,000 people; so, given the scale of the country’s population, then perhaps they were right! Since then, the government has channelled funding previously dedicated to leprosy back into the general health system. Leprosy charities say that donations have fallen significantly, and some projects have had to close. Karigiri is hanging on “by the skin of its teeth”. Because of the present stance of the Indian Government, and, of course, since this is a “Christian” rather than a Government Hospital, there is no money forthcoming from that area!

A recent unpublished government study of the number of new leprosy cases in India suggests that the official figures don't show the true scale, and it may be much higher. In one Indian state, health workers found the number of people infected was five times the official estimate.

 A leaked copy obtained by Channel 4's Unreported World of a recent unpublished Indian Government study of the number of new leprosy cases in India suggests that the official figures don't show the true scale, and it may be much higher. This was the first time in six years health workers have carried out extensive surveys. In one Indian state, health workers found the number of people infected was five times the official estimate. The programme reporting on leprosy today in India, broadcast 25th March, 2011,  had this to say:

“ Many leprosy sufferers face lifelong rejection, stigma and discrimination. There's a widespread fear that the disease is highly contagious. In reality, 95% of humans are naturally immune, which is why campaigners call it the world's "least contagious communicable disease". While doctors are still unsure exactly how leprosy is spread (it's probably by airborne droplet infection such as coughing and sneezing), it is easily treated with highly effective drugs available for free thanks to collaboration between the WHO and the pharmaceutical company Novartis. Nevertheless, even those who have been cured and are no longer contagious are shunned by society and forced to live as outcasts. India has an estimated 1,000 leprosy colonies that are home to hundreds of thousands people living their lives in the disease's long dark shadow.”

We at St John’s have been privileged to play our small part in bringing dignity to the lives of a few leprosy-sufferers, in our support of Shanthigramam Leprosy Village. This is something which we have been able to do for the last ten years, and I hope that St John’s will continue to support it for many years to come. There are very few contributors to the work of Karigiri or to Shanthigrammam. There is, however, another group in the UK who are supporting both Karigiri / Shanthigramam and MBKGP Orphanage in Kasam – The Sebastian Hunter Memorial Trust, based in London and Vellore (“Seb’s Project”).

The trust has this to say about Karigiri – “When the hospital opened, 60% of its funding came from western donors. Now only 12% comes from foreign sources. As leprosy has almost completely disappeared from countries in Europe and North America, people in the West do not recognise its grave effect on people elsewhere. The hospital sees over 2,000 leprosy patients a year; though this is only a small proportion of those thought to suffer from the disease. Further funding for leprosy research is still needed – how leprosy is contracted is still unknown.”