Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE NOWHERE PEOPLE...Sumanahalli Society( Indian Express,29th July 2009)

The Indian Express

Johnson TA Posted online: Wednesday, Jul 29, 2009 at 0138 hrs

Bangalore : For the last eight years 51-year-old Thimmaiah, his wife Jayamma and 13-year-old daughter Varalakshmi have been living on the campus of the Sumanahalli Society — a centre for leprosy, HIV treatment, street kids, orphans and destitutes — located on 50 acres of what is now prime land in Bangalore. Sent out of his village after he developed leprosy, the Sumanahalli Society, run by Christian priests and nuns, is the only home for Thimmaiah and his family. His wife Jayamma is blind. Their life revolves around their daughter who looks after the couple between attending a school on the same campus.

Ten days ago, Thimmaiah learnt from Fr George Kannanthanum, the director of the society, that the BJP government in Karnataka in a July 6 Cabinet meeting has decided to take back the land leased to the society.

"There will be nowhere to go. I don't know what will become of us," says Thimmaiah.

At the St Joseph's School, run by the Sumanahalli Society, where Thimmaiah proudly says his daughter is learning English, the nine teachers have been informed about the possible government takeover of the land, but the 108 children have not been told yet. "We don't want to inform the children or their parents as yet because they will stop sending them. Most come from poor families who cannot afford books, fees or food and the free education here is the incentive to send them," says headmistress Sister Suma.

Over 1,700 people, including poor schoolchildren, AIDS-affected, destitute and disabled persons are set to be uprooted as the state government moves to take back 210 acres set aside for their rehabilitation and relief over the years.

"When I heard about the land being taken over by the government, I felt sad for all the people here who have nowhere to go. This land has given a new lease of life to so many hundreds of people," says 21-year-old Lokesh Kumar, a third-year law student in a local college who first came to Sumanahalli 10 years ago as a homeless boy after being diagnosed with leprosy at a home for runaway kids.

Apart from the 50 acres of land leased to the organisation, an adjacent 160-acre property with a Beggars Colony that houses 922 people — including 131 mentally disabled, 45 disabled and 402 elderly — will also be a part of the government land swoop. "The prime land valued at Rs 1,000 crore has been coveted by politicians for a while now. In 2007, during the JD(S)-BJP rule, a minister had proposed handing over the entire property at one-third of the market value to private developers. But the proposal did not go through," said a senior bureaucrat in the government.

While the Yeddyurappa government has officially announced plans to acquire the 160-acre Beggars Colony, the move on the Sumanahalli property has not been announced. But senior officials confirmed that a Cabinet decision has been taken in this regard.

"The Cabinet decision covers the entire land and includes Sumanahalli. A notification is yet to be issued. Modalities are being worked out for the takeover. The land will be entirely used for public purpose and will involve government agencies," said Principal Secretary, Social Welfare department, E Venkataiah, under whose purview the 210 acres of land falls. Social Welfare department officials said plans were afoot to finalise the rehabilitation of the people from the Beggars Colony, but added there were no such plans for Sumanahalli.

A Cabinet decision on moving the Beggars Colony was taken on July 6 after Yeddyurappa paid a "surprise visit" and expressed unhappiness over health, food and working conditions of the people living there.

In a press briefing on the proceedings of the July 6 Cabinet meeting, Home Minister V S Acharya announced that the Cabinet has decided to take over 160 acres of the Beggar's Colony on the Magadi Road for the construction of a hospital, a bus terminus and a large park, but remained silent on 50 acres of land with the Sumanahalli Society.

"We were not even issued a notice about the move to evict us from this land. We came to know about it accidentally during a meeting with a government official. Does this mean there is no place for the poor in Bangalore?" says Fr George Kannanthanam.

The Sumanahalli Society was started as a leprosy treatment and rehabilitation project in 1977 on 63 acres of land leased by the then chief minister Devaraj Urs. In a letter to the then archbishop of Bangalore, inviting him to set up the facility, Urs had stated that "it may be difficult for a government organisation to provide this, as tasks of mercy are not generally effectively done by a bureaucratic system". The society had been tasked with 'conducting, running and administering a centre for the welfare and rehabilitation of leprosy patients and other physically destitute persons and their families'.

Widely recognised for its humanitarian service, the Sumanahalli Society, with leprosy cases on the decline, has expanded into HIV treatment, rehabilitation of the disabled and destitutes. The society won the best NGO serving the disabled in Karnataka award in 2007. A garment factory started on the campus with government support provides employment to over 100 people including HIV patients, leprosy affected people and their family members.

"Most people still identify us as a leprosy project, but we work with HIV/AIDS patients (30), differently abled (30), orphans (45), street boys (50), juvenile delinquents (40)," says Fr George Kannanthanam.

The society handed over 13 of its 63 acres to the government for building a road. In 2006, the society agreed to a proposal where 25 acres of land was to be taken by the government for creating a campus for the Visvesvaraya Technological University and the remaining 25 acres would be given as a grant to the society.

"When the 30-year lease over the property ended in 2007, government officials assured us that there will be no problems in continuing our work. We never expected this. The land has been earmarked for a social cause and if used commercially, it violates the basic principle of land use," the director said.

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