//Superstition hinders healthcare in tribal areas

Superstition hinders healthcare in tribal areas

New Delhi, April 2: Thirty-five years ago, Hemalkasa village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district had no power, no healthcare facilities and no road connection to the outside world.
Today it has a hospital that serves 45,000 patients, many of whom are tribals from adjoining Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. But medical experts working there feel more needs to be done.

“Healthcare remains a problem in the region, especially in Bastar (Chhattisgarh). Traditional medicine and therapies have not developed there because the villagers believe in black magic, witchcraft, faith healing, animal and human sacrifice and superstitions,” said here Prakash Amte, a surgeon and son of late social activist Baba Amte.

“Some of the areas are still inaccessible, making it is difficult for us work in the far-flung villages in the hinterland,” he added.

In 1973, Baba Amte instituted the Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) or the People’s Brotherhood Project, brought the light of civilisation to Hemalkasa, which is home to the Madia-Gond tribals – one of the biggest ethnic groups in the region. Besides the hospital, a school was set up and the tribals got a source of income through organised agriculture.

The Hemalkasa set-up meets the needs of more than 250,000 tribal villagers from the region spread across three states – Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

The non-profit outfit is now led by Prakash and his wife Mandakini, an aneasthesist. Both of them were honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2008 for community service.

Prakash touched upon LBP’s work in Bastar at the India International Centre (IIC) here Wednesday evening as part of the “Bringing Real Development to the Real India” symposium chaired by Aruna Ray.

“Initially we found it difficult to convince the tribals to send the patients to our clinic because they were suspicious of outsiders and modern medicines. However, the antibiotics saved us. They were very effective because the tribal patients had not tried antibiotics before,” said Prakash.

“The major diseases that afflict tribals are undernourishment, anaemia – including sickle cell anaemia, cerebral malaria, tuberculosis and animal bites,” he added.

The hospital at Hemalkasa has 50 beds and the Amte team has expanded to include Prakash’s sons Aniket and Diganta as well as daughter-in-law Anagha.

“I visited Bharamgarh (in Bastar) as a 20-year-old medicine graduate and agreed to help my father when he decided to set up a tribal rehabilitation project there. Healthcare and living conditions were abysmal,” said Prakash.

He also teaches the tribals modern agriculture and vocational skills so that they can become self-employed.

“Several Madia-Gond students from our school, who have achieved professional success as doctors, lawyers and engineers, have returned to our fold to serve their kin,” Prakash said.

Five students from the LBP School have completed their medical training to become doctors.

The government provides nearly 75 percent of the finances for the students. “In the initial stages, we received funds from Oxfam,” said Prakash.

All LBP projects have contributed to the transformation of Hemalkasa, but the one that Prakash is most proud of is the animal orphanage called Animal Ark, which is the first of its kind in India.

“It started with a monkey. The tribals, who believed in community hunting, had killed a monkey and were taking it home for lunch. We saw a baby clinging to the dead mother. We took the baby, brought it home and it soon became part of the family.”

“We had a country dog. The monkey used to sit on the dog’s back and follow us around. It was followed by a deer. I wanted to prove that contrary to the idea that animals are cruel, they love humans,” Prakash said.