WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Catholic Church in India is looking to expand its capacity in the health care field, said Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
The Catholic Church, whose members make up only about 1.3 percent of India’s population of more than 1 billion people, is already second only to the Indian government in the number of health care services it provides, with 5,450 health care facilities in the nation, 85 percent of them in rural areas.
Cardinal Toppo visited the United States in early August to meet with leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and with officials of Catholic Relief Services on health issues. He also met with representatives of Georgetown University, which had participated in two rounds of talks in India on how to build up the church’s health care infrastructure.
The result: The establishment of a medical school at a Catholic hospital in India next year, to be followed by the construction of a Catholic hospital near Ranchi, in northern India, in the cardinal’s home state of Jharkhand.
“I am a son of the soil,” he noted with a smile. Agriculture is the mainstay for 80 percent of the rural population in Jharkhand.
Beyond the school and the hospital, it is the long term that has Cardinal Toppo concerned.
“What is the Catholic Church in India going to do in the field of health in the next 15 to 20 years? That is the question,” he said.
“Health is a great leveler,” he added. “In health and sickness, all are equal. That is where the church should be. Disease cannot distinguish one person from the other.”
Cardinal Toppo said the new medical school and hospital will “give an identity to the church and give recognition to the church” for its role in improving Indian society.
Although India’s economy is growing, the benefits are distributed unequally.
“The rich are getting richer and the poor stay poor,” Cardinal Toppo said during an Aug. 10 interview with Catholic News Service. This situation plays itself out in health care and other segments of society.
Health and economic benefits do not reach rural dwellers as easily as they do residents of India’s urban centers.
“The villages and the countryside have not been reached,” Cardinal Toppo said. “On the contrary. The displacement of the people — landless — and the migrations of the people (mean) they are left high and dry.”
For instance, there has been growing discussion in India about whether food should continue to be a basic right in India’s constitution. Distribution of food and food-redemption cards has been marked by fraud and theft.
Cardinal Toppo said the government approached his archdiocese about using Catholic facilities for distribution.
“We have the infrastructure, the social work, the parishes,” the cardinal said. But “the fundamentalist“ &Mdask .described by Cardinal Toppo as Hindu members of the Bharatiya Janata Party &mash hounded the government into withdrawing its request, claiming that distribution through the Catholic Church would prompt Hindu conversions.
Caste distinctions, an element of Indian society for centuries, persist despite the abolition of caste recognition when the Indian Constitution was adopted shortly after the country’s founding in 1947.
Although young adults of different castes study together at India’s universities, the marriage of men and women from different castes, even when they met in college, may result in “honor killings” committed by members in the higher-caste partner’s family to preserve caste status.
“Slowly this is changing,” Cardinal Toppo said. “Slowly this is changing.”