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How young medicos are making a positive difference with the Maitri movement

M3 India Newsdesk Jul 18, 2018

For many years now, the debate about doctors practicing in rural areas has raged in the public sphere, with accusations and counter-accusations being hurled at one another from both sides. However, the fact is that many doctors have stood up when the government system has failed to do its duty adequately, and many continue to do so for years together. One such dedicated group of doctors is the Maitri movement.

The Maitri campaign sends nearly 100 doctors to the remote and tribal-dominated Melghat region, each rainy season. Situated in the Central part of India, in Amravati district near the Melghat tiger reserve, this region is known for its dense forests and beautiful landscape. The Korku tribe is dominant here, with most residents being part of the tribe.

However, as in many cases across our country, being part of a disadvantaged population in a rural area often means systemic neglect and a desperate lack of services. Melghat is no exception. Melghat has a high infant mortality rate, threadbare health services which fail to provide even basic healthcare, and an unresponsive state government which has still not taken any effective measures of improvement there.

In 1997, a group of doctors began to visit Melghat and its villages to treat its ailing children and women, who were most vulnerable during the rainy season when vector-borne diseases combined with other infections take a heavy toll on life and health. The team of doctors then decided to keep coming back each year, and they sent out a call to others for help. Many responded, and thus was born Dhadak Mohim (meaning a campaign conducted on war footing).

Dhadak Mohim

Initiated in 1997, Dhadak Mohim now operates for around 90-100 days each year, when ten batches of ten medical volunteers, accompanied by anyone else who would like to contribute go and camp in Melghat and provide medical care to the tribals there. The movement began on a very small scale, first tending only to five villages. However, now it has grown and covers nearly 47 villages in the region.

The organizing team drafts a list of priority villages each year and they are given attention depending on the severity of circumstances there. Most remarkably, the call for volunteers works so well, that many are oversubscribed, and must be turned down due to lack of available facilities and space.

While all those who volunteer are expected to take care of their own expenses and travel, the movement provides basic lodging facilities such as tents, medications, and equipment for care, which again is sponsored by good samaritans who cannot make it to the site in person.

At the beginning of each rainy season, a host of talented young doctors and professionals make the arduous journey from Paratwada in Amravati to the Dhadak Mohim base camp, from where they walk to the medical camp situated in the forests since most tribal villages are small hamlets located in places lacking connectivity to good roads.

The team has a rigorous schedule and set of rules which volunteers must follow before embarking on their journey. The area being situated deep in the forests allows only for a frugal lifestyle and simple food during the stay. Moreover, the team members are also advised to be on the lookout for creatures such as snakes and scorpions, not an everyday experience for most doctors who hail from urban areas.

Lessons in practice

Despite the harsh living conditions and challenging experience, most doctors report it as a transformative experience, often giving them a glimpse of medical issues which they believe never existed around them. Many usually take a pledge to do something which keeps the spirit of this movement alive in them. Some offer services to poorer sections of society around them, others voluntarily serve in rural areas for some years, while others are inspired to undertake research projects or projects aimed at strengthening health systems in underserved areas.

Dr. Taru Jindal, a lactation consultant and gynecologist from Mumbai shares, “Until now I had heard & read about the need in such areas. When I saw and felt it firsthand, I was stunned. I felt such utter shock at the disparity. Being from Mumbai, I felt as if I had been dulled to a lot of things happening outside my city. Our concerns are different, our views slightly myopic. I don’t believe people in my city don’t care, just that the exposure to things and issues outside the city is less because there are too many local issues hogging the limelight here. But, we have to keep working to bridge the gap. The gap is too wide to be ignored. How fair is it to get funds to make Mumbai into Shanghai, when other places in the same state still don’t have a light bulb? I am not against progress, but there needs to be well-distributed progress.”

Dr. Priyadarsh Ture and his partner, part of the current coordination team of the movement state that many-a-times, people see the movement as a small challenge to the apathy that we see from official quarters.

High tides

In 2013, the movement treated nearly 40 patients each day, bringing the total to above a thousand patients across the season. The team also admitted 51 pregnant women to healthcare centers for further care after arriving at a diagnosis and treated 153 malnourished children to normalcy.

During other times, the team saves nearly 30 to 40 lives of critically ill children each season. The team plans to conduct detailed studies of the patients saved so that the government can be given a list of priorities which need to be tackled in the area.

What’s in the future?

The movement is now well established, and runs well, free of glitches now, although Dr. Ture acknowledges that supplies and medications need to be arranged each year, and shortages do persist in some cases. The movement now wants to create a pressure group to focus on other issues such as livelihood and sustainable healthcare systems in the region. But in the meanwhile, the mission to save children and lives will go on!

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