Vimal Chaandane was just 11 when she ran away from home. She was too young to know what the lesions on her skin meant, but old enough to know they had made her an object of revulsion, even in her own family. "I tried taking pills to kill myself," she recalls. "It hurt to live like an outcast." She eventually ended up at the Kondhwa Leprosy Hospital on Pune's outskirts.
That was nearly three decades ago. Today, as she defies her mutilated fingers to operate the deburring machine at a factory not far from the hospital where she was cured, the illiterate 40-year-old widow exudes confidence. Both her daughters go to college, while her son is busy preparing for his Class 10 board exams. And when relatives who once shunned her come calling at her well-appointed 500 sq ft apartment, her eyes can't help shimmering with pride.
What's transformed Chaandane's life is the sense of purpose and control over her future that she shares with her 98 male and 12 female colleagues at the factory. They're all members—and owners—of the Dr Minoo Mehta Apangoddhar Sahkari Audyogik Utpadak Sanstha (MMASAUS), a unique cooperative society formed by leprosy-cured patients.
A past history of sores, ulcers, deformities and social stigma may have brought them together. But what connects them is their resolve to turn the all-too-visible reminders of a cruel affliction into affirmations of a vibrant future. Declared cured of the leprosy that once ravaged their bodies, they are now busy healing their spirits.
At their 10,000 sq ft factory, these men and women display a resilience tougher than the precision-machined components, press parts, fabricated assemblies and forging items they crank out for the automotive industry. And the stories of their grit go well beyond the Rs 4,500-Rs 5,500 that they make every month.
Dattatreya Tapkir was a 25-year-old father of one when the disease struck him in the early '80s. "I was about to be made permanent as a helper in an engineering firm when I had to pull out for treatment," he says. "My family was in dire straits. In the four years I spent in the hospital, I craved death as I knew the stigma wouldn't go away even when I got better." Things began to change in 1983 when he joined MMASAUS as a helper. Notwithstanding the stump he has for a right foot and an eye deformity, the 52-year-old has grown through the ranks to become a driller, and enabled his son to land a coveted bank job.
Life was a smooth ride for Gulab Pardeshi, a gunner in the Indian army, until at age 22, he started experiencing swelling and loss of sensation in his limbs. As the doctor broke the news to his mother, he told her: "Iske bartan bahar rakh do." What followed were seven years of treatment in Nasik and Pune hospitals, which was where he met his wife, Sita, another patient. Now a job inspector at MMASAUS, which he joined in 1991, the 52-year-old father of two schoolgoing sons says: "Life here has helped us forget our past like a bad dream."
Truly devoted: Sabia Pathan at MMASAUS
The story of 50-year-old Sabia Pathan is different. She herself never suffered from leprosy, but still had to brave social ostracism. Twenty-five years ago, she was thrown out of the family home along with her leprosy-affected husband, Usman Khan. This only hardened her determination to stand by him through his recovery. She has since arranged the marriage of one of her daughters to a cured leper. "Afflictions are what we make of them," she says, matter-of-factly. Khan is among over 50 MMASAUS members who have received interest-free loans from the society to buy or build their own houses. While her husband retired a year ago from his job with MMASAUS, Sabia continues to work there.
MMASAUS dates back to the pioneering work of Dr Jal Mehta in treating leprosy patients at the Kondhwa Hospital and rehabilitating them under the aegis of the Poona District Leprosy Committee (PDLC), a charitable trust he founded and chaired. When he realised that a cure did not necessarily come with social acceptance for leprosy patients, he sought help in 1979 from Sumant Moolgaokar, often referred to as the architect of Tata Motors, to provide industrial training to these patients for making them economically independent. Moolgaokar helped realise this vision and sourced machinery for them from Hindustan Machine Tools.
Thus was born, in 1983, PDLC's vocational training project, which gave these leprosy-cured patients an opportunity to prove their mettle. "Yet, it was difficult for them to be absorbed in the social mainstream," says Prakash Patil, chairman, MMASAUS. "Activities like candle-making and weaving could not quite help them make a decent living," says MMASAUS secretary, Ameenuddin C. Shaikh. "The group therefore got itself registered as a cooperative society in 1987 under Dr Mehta's guidance."
The society came into its own in 2004 when its reins were transferred from a trust to the members themselves. However, it had no money or raw material to start with. "Dr Mehta had anticipated this situation and had encouraged us from early on to set aside a part of our incentives," informs Patil. "This helped us mobilise the starting capital and get rolling with 40 products."
The first year ended in a loss, but things started looking up thereafter. The turnover gradually increased from Rs 2.85 crore in 2004-05 to Rs 8 crore in 2007-08. With a portfolio of over 110 products, ranging from steering parts to chassis components, the enterprise was on course to achieving its turnover target of Rs 10 crore for 2008-09 before the market downturn put the brakes.
Tata Motors continues to be its largest customer—almost all of their trucks, cars and utility vehicles use parts produced by MMASAUS—even as Poonawalla Group, Lucas TVS, Forbes Marshall, Sipra Engineering and Autocast have been added to the client roster. While it took some convincing initially for suppliers to provide raw material on credit, they don't hesitate to do so today. On their part, customers speak glowingly of the "can-do attitude" of the enterprise.
Led by a 13-member working committee drawn from the society's membership, business has been helped as much by the fact of Tata Motors being among its clientele as by quality control and process accreditations such as iso TS/16949:2002 and Kaizen. "We were a rather inorganic organisation earlier, using more people, machines and electricity for virtually everything we did. The accreditations helped us weed out redundancies and inefficiency," says Patil. "The society is proud to have come so far without any government help, tax concessions or bank loans." That's much like its feisty owners who have fought their own battles and come out winners.