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Bahrar, Kashmir’s last colony for Lepers

A woman, probably in mid-fifties, was busy washing the clothes under what seems to be a common tap of her colony. Engrossed in her work, the movements of footsteps compelled her to look at this reporter. Without seeking many details, she could sense the purpose of the visit. She breaks into a kind smile, “Achatorumfikriwalew be nimavzithannish.”(Oh got it, let me take you to the elders) she says while pointing to a group of elderly men chatting under the Chinar. Before leaving, she introduces herself as Hameeda, a 55-year-old inmate of Bahrar, Kashmir’s last colony for lepers from last three decades.

Built on an expanse of 312 kanals of land, the leper colony of Srinagar is distinct from any other settlement in Srinagar: single-storeyed white apartments bounded by old remnant huts, with a hospital building at the extreme.

Located on the banks of Nigeen Lake at BhagwanporaLalbazar, the colony was established during the later half of 19th century under Kashmir Medical Mission by Britishers. The motive was to isolate and treat patients of the contagious disease which at that point of time had the region in its grip and was considered lethal.

Initially, 30 patients were registered and as the years went by this place set out to become a community of a couple of hundred residents who after being socially outcasted and exiled here from across the valley.In 2000 the new admissions to the colony were stopped after the leprosy was declared completely treatable. Officially the number of people registered for living here is 100 but the actual figure rises to approximately 250 persons as it includes the families of lepers as well as those of deceased lepers. Many of the lepers live here with their children and their children, therefore, the colony is home to 3 generations of leprosy patients living side by side.

An inside view of leper colony in Srinagar (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

The colony houses 62 single storied cemented white houses called residential quarters, 4 barracks like mud structure designated as male and female wards, a double storied hospital, a graveyard and a mosque.

Inmates first used to live in wards, each ward had 4 compartments and one family lived in per compartment. In 2014 under JLNRRM, SMC built 62 new dwellings as new residential quarters and most of the old wards were demolished. However, a few wards are still present and they house the families of deceased lepers.

The staff here consists of a medical officer, two medical assistants, two nursing orderly, a sweeper, a barber and a washerman. The colony is run by Director Health Services Kashmir and its under their wing the patient are provided with food clothing and medicines for their disease and besides this, they also get a monthly allowance of Rs 1000 from the department of social welfare. However, the dwellers here say what the government provides them does not suffice. “They provide us things necessary to survive, 11 kgs of rice per head per month,750 grams of vegetables per day, 2 Cochewour (bread)  a day, a pheran after 4 years,a pair of slippers after a year and 2 set of clothing a year, this is what they give us. You tell me is that enough? This year it was so cold we asked for some blankets they didn’t provide us any. All that government does is to save us from hunger rest we depend on help from people.” says Ghulam Nabi,a 75-year-old man originally hailing from Kokernag living here since last 58 years.

To this Khadija, a 65-year-old woman showing a plastic box full of medicines adds “I am diabetic, hypertensive.I am on medication since last 10 years and have to manage them on my own. I had to undergo a heart surgery a year back and didn’t receive any help from them (authorities). There used to be a school here some 7 to 8 years back but they closed it. Now some of our children go to a government school and some to private but all depend upon the charity of people.The media has helped a lot they aware people about our needs who in turn give us funds, this is how we live.”

The inmates have formed a committee of 4 members for the distribution of charity they receive. Pointing to the rice being distributed there Ghulam Nabi says, “See these 10-20 kgs of rice we got from charity the committee will equally distribute so that it reaches even to the ones who are bedridden and are not here to collect it.University kids helped us very much. In last winters they gave a gas cylinder to each person and blankets as well those too were distributed by the committee.”

As most of them suffer from physical deformities they are unable to earn and those who do earn a few bucks by labouring, do not find it enough to meet the need of providing education to their children and other medical expenses as such the funds provide great relief to them.

File image of hospital inside Leper colony

Though free from the disease, the inhabitants of this colony are unwilling to go back to their native places. “Who would we go back to? Many of us had to sell our property in our native villages to come here so there is nothing left to go back to.”. They share the painful memories of days when they were diagnosed with this disease. “When I was diagnosed with the symptoms of this disease my family decided to send me here so that they don’t have to live with an untouchable. I was 11 then. They called this (Lepers Colony) a dumping ground for people unworthy to live and left me here to die” says Shukur Khan from Kargil and adds that “I cannot name but there was this village where two kids of one of our fellow inmates went to visit their uncle and aunt. After providing them with the meals the dishes were put aside by their uncle using his left hand. The children saw that and it broke their heart.This is the treatment they received from their own blood and even when they are completely healthy and it’s their parents who suffered from leprosy and they too now have cured even in this era they are skeptic of us of our children so how can we think of going back for forever.Relatives may visit us and we too visit them but after spending 60 to 70 years here this is where we belong now.”

This sense of belongingness is probably the reason that the residents here are so opposed to the recent proposal of the relocation of the colony by the government and they say that they would die but not allow that to happen. The medical officer of the colony, Dr Yasmeen is also of the opinion that the move to relocate the colony should not be made.“The place is best for them. No residential congestions, a lot of greenery, less pollution all conditions here are suitable for them medically. Moreover, they have been living here for decades together even their dead are buried here. They won’t find it easy to go”.

The inmates here though do wish that the Multi Drug Therapy that treats leprosy in the bud and prevents deformities was available in their time but they still have accepted their lost extremities and deformed face as their fate, so much so that they are used to referring themselves as patients when they are just inmates and not patients now. Such is their level of acceptance even to their social stigma that one of the residents Abdul Aziz with a blank face goes on to say ,“Waen ye chu ti chu yeichu. Tueh manev haez aesiche yeti kuda karkat bacheimet.” (This is what it is now.You see we are garbage of the society left here now.) This is quite ironical as the name of the colony Bahrar has a Persian origin derived from the word BahaarAraaa meaning pride of the lake.

(Irtiza Rafiq is 3rd semester students of Dept of Journalism and Mass Communication, Govt College for Women, MA Road, Srinagar.)

First published in Kashmir Life on January  31st, 2018

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