When MADHU SINGH began a part-time volunteer role with Tibetan refugees in northern India in 1982, she had no idea what a key role she would come to play in rural community health. In this first of a two-part interview, the Uttarakhand Cluster President shares her story.
Jake: Your story is a remarkable one. Tell us how you became involved in community work?
Madhu: Well I never intended to be involved in this work. I was a school teacher at first – I taught Science and Maths for more than nine years. But in November 1981 I left my job and joined my husband’s work. He was an evangelist and social worker from a Tibetan background, and at the time many Tibetan refugees had come over into rural northern India from Bhutan. He wanted to help them, and so we used to go to two of these refugee camps, near Dehradun. He began to work in rural clinics supporting the refugees, and I would go into the Tibetan camps to conduct health surveys with families.
Jake: And that's where you met Ted, Arukah Network's Co-Leader?
Madhu: That's right. Ted was establishing a community health programme there. I initially helped out once a week, but this soon became twice, and then three times a week. Then in 1984 my husband and I along with some others decided to launch our own programme. Thus OPEN [Organisation for Prosperity, Education and Nurture] came into existence in March 1985. In August, we made a funding application to start a clinic. Unfortunately, in September my husband suddenly passed away. This was a very difficult time, but I soon realised I really wanted to continue the work he started – I felt I was supposed to do this. And then when our funding application was successful, we went ahead with it. And so our Community Health Programme in Dehradun began in January 1986.
Jake: What was the focus of this work at the beginning?
Madhu: There was very little immunisation of newborn babies and children under five years at that time, so we focussed on this: TB, Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Polio and Measles. We also carried out pre and post-natal check-ups of mothers too. TB was prevalent and patients from far and near came for treatment to our first clinic. We had adopted twelve villages in the catchment area. However, patients started coming from further away and we had to cater to their dire needs too. We started another clinic the next year.
While serving in this second clinic, we found that more and more patients from across the district (which was quite remote and un-served by any health facility till then) started coming to us with TB, Leprosy, malnutrition, skin problems, stomach and allied ailments, with high rate of mother and infant deaths. With this kaleidoscope of health challenges, we were prompted to start a third clinic. Patients came to us at the clinics, but our staff also went into remote areas to train local women, who could then look after themselves and others in our absence. These ladies were given theoretical and practical trainings at our clinic premises too.
We also launched family planning programmes in around one hundred and twenty villages in District Tehri Garhwal, where we gave training to volunteers. We also worked to increase health awareness through street shows, puppet shows and audio-visual aids.
Jake: And how long did these clinics run for?
Madhu: Our funding ended in 2002. But by this time, immunisation was up to ninety per cent in the villages, and family health and awareness had improved too. Also, roads and transport had improved so people in rural areas could travel more easily to government health clinics in the bigger towns. And so we became more involved in other projects: a water conversation programme, and also biodiversity and income generation, where we would meet women’s groups in ten villages, give them seeds, encourage them to grow flowers, and teach them how to market them.
Jake: So what are you doing now?
Madhu: Since 2009, we’ve been working on a government scheme to co-ordinate and train ASHAs in District Dehradun. ASHAs are ‘Accredited Social Health Activists’ [similar to Community Health Workers]. I also help run a school that we started in Rajpur, Dehradun in 2011. Actually that was always my ambition: that my husband would run the community health project, and I would run a school. But then after my husband’s death, plans changed. We have around sixty-seven children in the school, many from poorer backgrounds because we keep the fees low. One more program which we are doing is Mental Health Project in six villages of Dehradun covering a population of 30,000 since June 2014. There is lots more to tell but I will save that for another time.
Jake: It sounds like you’ve seen big improvements take place in terms of rural community health in your part of northern India. I wonder how the Cluster has helped contribute to all this?
Madhu: When we started the Cluster in 2008, we didn’t imagine we’d come to have more than fifty member organisations. And you know, if I think about what things would be like here in Uttarakhand if we had not started the Cluster: people would be keeping a lot of important knowledge and skills to themselves. We mainly share with each other through our ‘Linking 2 Learn’ training. An ‘L2L’ as we call it, is where we meet together for two days twice a year for training on a topic that is important to the work of all of us. In the past this has included spiritual health, communications and disability inclusion. And so this is what we do: local organisations share key skills and information with each other. And this means that if an organisation has limited knowledge or vision or skills, the Cluster expands these things. But also, by coming together people can raise their voice, claim their rights, give and receive more knowledge, and increase their confidence.
Jake: What are your hopes for your Cluster's future?
Madhu: In the Cluster we like to emphasise that we are all part of one body, so we are supposed to help each other. The big organisations – those that have knowledge and skills – they can help the smaller organisations. And so for example, if one organisation ever has a problem, they can share it with us, so any organisation which can help solve that problem can work with the organisation. I would like the smaller groups to better understand this vision, and what they can achieve through it, so they get more involved. And I would also like to raise more funds in order to help these other Cluster members too.
Finally, I want everyone to know that if you give by serving people, you receive happiness, peace and blessings from God. Cluster members have to understand that. So we try. And we’ll keep on trying. And we’ll keep on working with the Cluster members, and encouraging them to be a part of this. And in future we’ll all work together and make a difference in the society, so help us Lord!
Learn about the Uttarakhand Cluster's 10th anniversary celebrations here.