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The lepers of India: Still untouchable

A new generation of lepers has never been infected with leprosy.

India declared treating certain castes as untouchable in 1950 and the constitution reserves around 20 percent of government jobs for people from those backgrounds. But even today lepers, and their children, are virtual untouchables, regardless of their caste.

According to a 2007 survey conducted by the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Advancement, leprosy-affected families across India face serious discrimination. Of 4,512 leprosy-affected persons surveyed, 1,259 were illiterate. Most of the children were not in school, and only 30 were in college. The job market was tough on them, too, with 712 people begging for a living and another 994 unemployed.

Despite the discouraging statistics, Arjun and the several other young men I met in New Seemapuri put a brave face on things, downplaying the handicap that living in a known leper colony places on them. Older men, like 28-year-old Kaimuddin Khan and 32-year-old Bhupender Kumar, have resigned themselves to the idea that their lives will likely be circumscribed by the boundaries of the leper community. But they focus on the positive.

“We have opened a small shop with the help of a government scheme for leprosy-affected people,” said Kumar. “We're actually squatting illegally on the property, but because this is a lepers' area nobody bothers us.”

However, youngsters like 17-year-old Tipu Sultan, who is studying in ninth class, still dream that one day they can live integrated lives. “As long as I keep studying, everything is fine,” said Sultan. “I don’t think I have any problems now because my Mom and Dad have leprosy. But I can't say what will happen in the future. I do feel I will be able to get a job, but I don't know where. My wish is to get a job outside of the colony, but I don't know if I can.”