Twenty years after Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines (58) and his sons Philip (10) and Timothy (6) were burnt to death in Odisha by a mob accusing Staines of conversions, a hospital built in his memory has suspended its operations after a face-off with the state government.
Built in 2004 in memory of Staines’ work among lepers, Graham Staines Memorial Hospital (GSMH) at Baripada in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is not functioning since 2016 after a stand-off with authorities over licences and payments.
According to GSMH administrator Issack Robert Rao, the hospital has been unfairly slapped with fines. “In 2009, the hospital paid registration fee up to August 2019. Owing to lax book-keeping, Odisha Directorate of Medical Education and Training (DMET) concluded that fee was not paid on time and slapped fines in 2015.”
Amounting to under Rs 80,000, the fines are not hefty. However, GSMH says it will not pay “unfair” charges.
The hospital is also being asked to produce a Fire Safety Certificate, which its management says it does not require as per rules. After a fire killed 20 people in a private hospital in Bhubaneswar, the state government demanded that private hospitals apply for certificate from the Fire Prevention Wing in the office of Directorate General, Fire Service, Home Guards and Civil Defence.
As per DMET’s website, a hospital or clinical establishment needs such certification if its building is taller than 9 m, has three or more floors, 30 or more beds, or one or more critical or intensive care units. “We are a two-storey building, less than 9 m in height, with 16 beds. We do not have ICUs. Yet we are being asked to produce a certificate,” said Rao.
Contacted by The Indian Express, the DMET office referred the matter to Mayurbhanj Collector, who said he was not aware of GSMH’s situation, but would “look into it”.
GSMH is also struggling with a funds crunch. When established, the hospital received donations from Australia, largely from friends of Staines family and people interested in leprosy elimination. GMSH management said most of these people are now too old or sick to send money. “Our average income is Rs 90,000 per month from subsidised treatment of general (non-leprosy) patients at the outpatients’ clinic. But, expenses are running up to Rs 1.40 lakh,” Rao stated.
Lack of funds is taking a toll on GSMH’s larger ecosystem designed to combat social prejudices against leprosy.
“Sometimes even after getting cured, patients are not allowed back into their communities,” said Surendra Majhi, a retired paramedic from GSMH. “Even now, leprosy is a convenient ruse to usurp property. These people are accommodated at the rehabilitation centre in (nearby) Rajabasa.”
Inmates at the centre recall the Staines. “After we were cured, Graham used to let us carry his young sons in public,” said Sarada Tudu, 65.
“Graham started a dairy project through which we sold milk to the locals. As people started buying milk from the ‘leprosy place’, prejudice started dropping,” recalled Solomon Soren, the secretary of Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home. “Milk made us a little money, but sparked astounding change.”
GMSH outpatient clinic’s resident consultant Dr P S Upadhyaya said leprosy is rearing its head again in Odisha. “New cases are being detected. Patients often do not complete the course of treatment after sores subside. Naturally, the disease comes back.”
The 2016-17 annual report of National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) said the prevalence rate of leprosy in India was 0.66 per 10,000 people. However, rates at the national level can disguise pockets at district or block level where leprosy has not been tackled. According to Dr S N Pati, consultant with NLEP, Odisha’s prevalence rate in December was up to 1.6 per 10,000 people. “We are detecting 9,000-10,000 new cases every year,” he said.
Staines’s wife Gladys now works as a nurse in a hospital in North Queensland, Australia. She and her daughter Esther survived because they were not present at the site when the rest of the family was burnt to death.
In a written statement to The Indian Express, Gladys said, “Leprosy is not a thing of the past, but it still affects people and causes deformity if left untreated.”
On her family, she said, “I do miss my children Philip and Timothy, I miss seeing them grow up, and who they might have been. I miss my husband Graham whom I dearly loved.”