Volume 18 Number 4
Supporting India's Lepers
01 August 2005
‘I told them that if I accepted, I would speak against the government’s decision to end its leprosy campaign,’ he recalls. True to his word, Fischer lambasted the Indian cabinet when he received the prize: telling his audience that the government’s claim that leprosy would be eradicated by the year 2000 was completely wrong.
WHEN DR Gerhard Fischer heard he was receiving the 1997 Gandhi Peace Prize for his work with lepers in India, he had a warning for Indian Government officials.
‘I told them that if I accepted, I would speak against the government’s decision to end its leprosy campaign,’ he recalls. True to his word, Fischer lambasted the Indian cabinet when he received the prize: telling his audience that the government’s claim that leprosy would be eradicated by the year 2000 was completely wrong. ‘In 50 years maybe we can close the book on leprosy,’ he said.
Born in Oslo in 1921, Fischer is a fearless giant of a man who looks much younger than his 83 years—most of which he has spent fighting bureaucracy: from the upper echelons of the German diplomatic service to minor government officials across India.
He spent his early years in China, and his first experience of India was as a teenager, travelling back to China after visiting family in Europe.
India fascinated him, but, he remembers, ‘I was utterly disgusted with the misery and the way the poor were treated.’
Back in China he became aware of the plight of lepers, then outcasts in society. He enrolled at medical school but the Japanese invasion cut short his studies and he left for Europe, walking straight into World War II. Eventually he completed a law degree at Munich University and joined the post-war German Foreign Service.
Throughout his time in the diplomatic service, Fischer never forgot the lepers in Beijing, deciding in 1985, with his late wife Ann’s backing, to start a new life in India and set up a leprosy hospital.
Determined to go it alone, he built four leprosy centres and three polio centres in 20 years; encouraging his patients to look to the future and, with proper medication, build new lives.
‘We can cure most cases of leprosy if they are caught early enough,’ he explains, adding that although cases are coming down, further research into the disease is still needed. Fischer’s challenge now is to find someone to replace him.
‘He or she must be an Indian. I am trying to find someone willing and motivated with the time and ability to raise the finance to run the whole thing.’
If anyone can find that person Fischer can, but until he does his work and his battle with the bureaucrats will continue—and woe betide anyone who tries to stop him!