Site Visit to Bankura, West Bengal by the Benegals

On February 22, 2006, Niranjan and Shantha Benegal visited Rural Development Society in Bankura, about 175 Km west of Kolkata, where PPI is sponsoring a project to rehabilitate leprosy-cured women and their families. Here is their report:

RDS is a very dedicated group of people led by Rev. Kalyan Kumar Kisku. We were impressed to see that this organization is bringing together members of different communities to development work. Established in 1977, RDS has been involved in integrated development programs for the socio-culturally oppressed and economically exploited communities in the rural area of that region. Their work is quite comprehensive and includes health care, education, revival of handicrafts, income generation, water and sanitation management, and empowerment through education and awareness.

PPI’s project involves the rehabilitation, education and vocational training of 85 cured leprosy women and their families through sustainable income generation. The target population is part of the Government of India’s Gauripur Leprosy Teaching and Research Institute, Asia’s largest leprosy Hospital. The RDS project is a pilot to further the rehabilitation of affected populations by mainstreaming cured patients. The social stigma attached to the disease makes it difficult for these participants to move out into society, so they stay near the Institute in modest but very clean traditional huts. Many of the patients have families and children who are not afflicted by the disease, but the stigma is transferred to them. With PPI’s support, RDS has already started a primary school, which is shared by a rehab group in the afternoons after school hours. In addition, an effort is being made to place some students in schools away from the area to facilitate mainstreaming.

Our visit to RDS coincided with the inauguration of the second phase of the program for a new group of participants. The event was heartwarming and very inspiring. We met several of the key workers of RDS who took turns to describe their work and show us around. It was very encouraging to see the sharing of responsibilities among a team of such dedicated and committed men and women. Most of the people in the audience were participants in our project.

We also visited other RDS activity centers. The Bankura area has a long tradition in beautiful crafts and some of them are on the decline. We saw a couple of centers -- bamboo crafts and bell metal ware -- where RDS has been helping to facilitate a revival sponsored by the government. By forming cooperatives and teaching simple improvements in technique, management and micro-credit, RDS is helping craftsmen to market their products directly to the retailers without middlemen.

A highlight of our trip was a visit to a beautiful, spic-and-span Santhal village, where we were treated to traditional dancing and drumming. The Santhals are the region’s tribal people, who are not only losing their traditional life style but are also being exploited. Women have become a source of cheap labor and victims of social ills. RDS has been helping them to confront these problems through education, awareness and empowerment. By forming self-help groups the Santhals have begun to negotiate for better compensation and working conditions. They are also working with the government agencies in restoring the dwindling natural resources of their environment. An example was the reversal of the World Bank’s misguided program of planting of eucalyptus trees, which rob the forest floors of both water and nutrients. The Santhals were able to negotiate with the government to “deforest” the eucalyptus and replant useful indigenous trees such as “Sal” to restore the environment.