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Dattapur and Gandhi: A History

DATTAPUR is India’s first leprosy colony and as such, the history of leprosy rehabilitation began here in 1936. It was created by a young man, Shri Manohar Diwan, who was greatly moved by the plight of leprosy sufferers, forced to live in isolation and extreme poverty as a consequence of the disease.

The colony is situated in the village of Wardha, 43 miles from Nagpur, which is also where the World Health Organisation first implemented Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) in the early 1980s. Prior to MDT, leprosy was treated with mono-therapy, a single drug called dapsone, successful in arresting the advancement of the disease but would often require the patient to continue life-long treatment. Due to illiteracy, many would discontinue treatment, uncertain of its effectiveness. By discontinuing dapsone, drug resistance resulted, making it insufficient in treatment.

Dattapur and Wardha have strong connections with Mahatma Gandhi, who lived nearby in the village of Sevegram, at the time of India’s fight for independence from the British in 1947.

Gandhi’s close friend and Sanskrit scholar, Shri Dattatraya Parchure Shastri, was so badly affected with leprosy that Gandhi initially failed to recognise his old friend. He was nursed in Sevegram ashram and was later moved to Dattapur by Gandhi, as one of the colony’s first and most prominent patients.

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“Sanskrit scholar Dattatray Parchure Shastri, a leprosy patient, asked to be admitted to Sevagram ashram. Some members objected as they feared infection. Gandhi not only admitted him; he gave him massage. In his letter to Shashtri he writes, " Shastriji, You have fallen ill! It is not good if it is from worry. But if it is death calling, there is no harm. You must go with a smile on your lips. And that too from a Lepers' House. Whatever it may be, remain calm and sing Tukaram's abhangs. Blessings from BAPU.”

Over the last 74 years, Dattapur has catered for hundreds of thousands of patients. Its massive infrastructure and 400 acres of land have provided shelter and quality of life to those who were otherwise forbidden to exist in mainstream society. Here sufferers received treatment whilst contributing to the colony’s self sufficient operations. Patients would grow their own crops, make their own cotton material and footwear and lead their lives with a new found sense of community and dignity.

In the last 10 years, the number of deformed leprosy cases has reduced significantly due to awareness, early detection and treatment. Whilst many still have nerve-damaged hands and feet and continue to face discrimination, there is no longer a need to colonise sufferers. As a consequence, Dattapur and many such colonies are dwindling. Significant numbers of elderly patients still remain but scarcity of funds has led to a neglect of their basic needs.

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