ANNOUNCEMENT: Tribute to APAL leader Venu Gopal (1952-2023)

The Leprosy Bulletin is saddened to announce the passing of Venu Gopal, a person affected by leprosy and social worker in India, who also served as the vice president and CEO of the Association of People Affected by Leprosy (APAL). For Goodwill Ambassador Sasakawa, Venu Gopal was an irreplaceable comrade in the fight against leprosy and related stigma and discrimination. The Bulletin is grateful to  APAL, and especially to Mohan Arikonda, for writing this tribute. 

Venu Gopal (seated) with participants in a youth forum workshop on leadership held in Mumbai.

Venu Gopal was an Indian social worker who sacrificed his whole life to advocate for persons affected by leprosy and their families to live with dignity, and he made it easy to include persons affected by leprosy in mainstream society. 

He was born in 1952 in Andhra Pradesh and advanced to higher education. He was affected by leprosy during his second year of college, and therefore was unable to finish his degree. After his hospital treatment ended, he coped with stigma and discrimination by leaving home and living in various leprosy colonies in different places in India for survival. He observed the plight of his fellow sufferers, their poverty, and their miserable way of living. Separated from their families, people were living in the leprosy colonies in unhealthy conditions without even bare necessities. He observed that there were no changes in their lives over many years. They depended on begging, and lived without any new hope for the future. The unchanging situations around him and his fears for his own future made him depressed for many years.  

One day, he was fortunate to meet some social workers who were standing up for persons affected by leprosy. Their rights-based language and their thought patterns brought out the consciousness in him. He started attending various capacity-building meetings and did small jobs to survive. 

The great leaders’ introductions and associations, reading more revolutionary books, and personal experiences made him a leader to give a voice to the voiceless. With the support of Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, and Dr. PK Gopal, he got an opportunity to join the National Forum and Association of People Affected by Leprosy (APAL) to serve persons affected by leprosy and their families directly in leprosy colonies of 16 of India’s 28 states.  

He was a great public speaker, and he provided his services and worked for socio-economic empowerment and welfare of persons affected by leprosy as the Vice President and CEO of APAL. His down-to-earth nature, simplicity, and high regard for women were examples to all fellow leaders, and he became a role model for the leprosy community. His efforts to bring more than 800 leprosy colonies under one organization (APAL) were immense and indescribable. He always improved the relationship or network between the colonies and leaders working for persons affected by leprosy. His fearless and tireless services during the hectic time of COVID-19 and the “Don’t Forget Leprosy” campaign were unforgettable. 

Venu Gopal passed away on April 30, 2023. APAL’s current president, Maya Ranavare, said that “APAL lost a great intellectual and man of knowledge. During his tenure, he spent more time in the field than with his family. He always used to say that when we get rid of our fear completely and live along with mainstream society, and when we can provide for ourselves while living with dignity and good character, then we will be able to experience independence. We will never forget his vision to gain gender equality and involve youth in leprosy services. We believe that he is always with us and guides us spiritually.”

Venu Gopal (third from left) with APAL’s Executive Committee members during a collaboration meeting with the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation (S-ILF) in Delhi.