Tuesday, 8 October 2013

There is no greater happiness than giving to those in need

This blog post, written by Shailaja Chandra, is about Dr Mehta and what drives him in his work at the age of 75. This post is part of the Wikiprogress Spotlight on 'Older People's Well-Being', building upon the International Day of Older Persons and the recent launch of the Global Age Index

Don't miss the current online discussion "How Should Older People's Well-being be Measured?" from 3-14 October. 

When I decided to write about unusual pursuits of retired civil servants, three officers were insistent that I write about Dr Mehta IAS (Indian Administrative Service). He is known for two achievements:as the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank and Chairman of SEBI for six years until 2002, he is credited with introducing game-changing financial reforms. 

But much more than these achievements, Mehta remains the face of the world-famous Jaipur foot and his brainchild, the Bhagwan Mahavira Viklang Sahayata Society (BMVSS), in Jaipur. This organisation has fitted artificial limbs on tens of thousands of patients over the last 38 years.

Precisely because all this is so well  known, I was not very enthusiastic about writing Mehta’s story. After all, he had received the Padma Bhushan alongside an array of international and national awards and huge media coverage. The BBC has filmed videos on his work and MIT, Stanford, CSIR and several IITs had been collaborating to improve the quality of the artificial limb. Forbes magazine has written a highly congratulatory article on Mehta’s project. Why then should I repeat what is so well-known?

Video: Bhagwan Mahavira Viklang Sahayata Society

Only for one reason: No one seems to have asked Mehta what triggered him to follow this unusual path with such steadfastness. What were the factors that motivated him? How has he sustained this passion? The entire venture has been growing from 1975 and Mehta himself is now 75 years old. What could I tell civil servants which Wikipedia, Google and so many citations could not?

I got hold of Mehta’s telephone number and gave him a call. I thought he would suggest a time some days later. Instead, there and then, he launched into a story which lasted two sessions of over 3 ½ hours, where he did all the talking.

Mehta accelerates his words like a mixer-blender at top speed; there is no punctuation let alone consideration for the listener-writer unaccustomed to taking long-hand dictation over a cell phone. Three times I requested him to continue the session the next day. Six times he retorted, “Just another two minutes please, only two minutes,” and added yet another dimension to his story. But the simplicity of the man and his child-like excitement sounded refreshingly different.

Suffice it to say that the contribution of Dr. Mehta had nothing to do with either the invention or the expertise needed to fit the limb. The credit for developing a successful and user friendly artificial limb goes to three orthopedic surgeons at the SMS Medical College Hospital, Jaipur, and a highly innovative craftsman. The story of how this four-man team observed, conceived, molded and started fitting the Jaipur foot on legless patients as far back as 1968 makes compelling reading. But this story is not about them – it is about Mehta.

Dr Mehta walks beside a child fitted with a Jaipur Foot, the most widely used prosthetic device in the world today

“Understand that there is no greater happiness than giving to those in need.”

It was Mehta who brought to the project what perhaps only a civil servant could have – the brain, the conviction and managerial brilliance. It was Mehta who was ultimately responsible for converting an admirable but insignificant initiative into a world-famous model. In the first seven years, despite its extraordinary qualities, only 50 patients could be benefitted by the Jaipur foot. It was Mehta’s BMVSS which scaled it up to 10,000 limbs a year, a figure which has now doubled itself. The Jaipur foot is today the most widely used prosthetic device in the world.

I asked Mehta about the influences and events which made him pursue this venture which he steers even today as though there is no tomorrow. Mehta told his story thus:

My father died when I was five years old. My brother’s influence was enormous but we were both brought up by our uncle in a joint family. Not only did he educate us and fulfil the responsibility of marrying our sister, but in the process had to sell the ancestral property to clear the loans. Why did he help us? Because in a joint family you have to be concerned about every member of the family. The first value we learnt as children was that of sharing. My mother had hardly anything to give but even she would put by small offerings and ask me to carry a bundle to the nearby orphanage every day. We learnt to share because that’s what we saw.

I joined the IAS in 1961. In 1967 a famine of horrific proportions devastated parts of Bihar. The photograph of an old woman with sunken cheeks, looking more like a skeleton than a human being, appeared on the front page of the Statesman. So shocked was I by that picture that I sought an appointment with the Chief Secretary and volunteered to go to Bihar. My proposal was refused for obvious reasons – no state accepts officers from another state as it is taken as a sign of incompetence of one’s own officers. But my offer was not forgotten.

When a terrible drought scorched Jaisalmer some years later, my offer was recalled. I was Collector of Sikar district adjacent to Jaipur when I got a call from the Chief Secretary. There were reports that the drought had resulted in the deaths of scores of children. Indira Gandhi was said to be extremely upset and was likely to visit the district. There was a fear that the Government would be sacked. As the new Collector I was tasked with organising the relief operations.

Acute scarcity of drinking water, near absence of medical care and unrelenting misery were evident everywhere. Most unbearable for me was the sight of people dying before my eyes and my being unable to help. One day, a little interlude brought some cheer. A social worker from nearby Pokhran, also in Jaisalmer, came and told me that labourers in his village had decided to donate one rupee a day to build two rooms for a local school. He added that a blind man also wanted to contribute by offering stones which his daughter would deliver on their donkey’s back. I was struck by the sacrifice of these people who owned nothing and yet were prepared to share what they could. I decided to visit his village to see how I could help.

But it was an ill-fated trip. On the way, a truck hit my station wagon. It was a major accident. I suffered multiple fractures and, after an interminable wait for three hours when I writhed in agony, I was moved to a hospital in Jodhpur. My companions thought I would die. I lived, but only to confront the imminent possibility of having one leg amputated. It was God’s grace that that did not happen but I remained inert for more than five months. In my motionless state I read whatever I could lay my hands on. All the while I was tortured by the thought of what happens to those less fortunate than us.

Apart from the teachings of Bhagwan Mahavir and the example of my own mother, it was reading about the life of Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer that had a profound influence on me. As a young doctor, Schweitzer had sacrificed all by taking his wife and young son to the disease-infested Congo (now known as Gabon), to set up a hospital to treat hundreds of patients suffering from fatal tropical maladies. I felt I had to do something which would exemplify his words, “Let us join the fraternity of those who bear the mark of pain,”words which resonate in my ears even today. Another life-story which mpacted me deeply was that of Sir Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who lost both his legs in an air crash. This legless pilot recovered as best possible, actually retook flight training and got reactivated as a pilot when the Second World War started.
The inspiration was aflame inside me but it needed an outlet. In 1975 an extraordinary opportunity arose which I used to advantage. As Secretary to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, I was appointed the member-secretary of the committee in charge of the 2500th anniversary of Bhagwan Mahavir’s Nirvan celebrations. I suggested that we should set up a society to give free limbs to poor people. The CM agreed and contributed Rs 2 lakh but asked me to raise the remaining money from the public. With that the BMVSS was formed and I became its Founder and continue as its Chief Patron.

People are getting anxious about BMVSS’ future. For ensuring its sustainability, user charges and a business model have been suggested to me by many. But, as long as I live, the free model will stay. We continue to live on the interest from our corpus, on our donations and on growing goodwill. I ask them, has a single business model survived for 38 years in the rehabilitation sector?

Mehta is a simple man who travels in a hatchback and, apparently, for all his connections, manages his venture prudently. His message for civil servants is: 

“Understand that there is no greater happiness than giving to those in need. But only true compassion and a respect for the dignity of the poor will work. Start as soon as you can by using your free time to advantage. No Government or boss can stop you if you decide to show sensitivity and compassion. And that is all you need. The rest will come the day you learn to care and to give.”

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