NATHAN GRILLS was at the launch of India’s ‘North East’ Cluster last month. He’s a Professor of Public Health in Australia who has helped nurture each of the Clusters in northern India. He’s been telling us about the launch and what draws him to this part of the world. Jake: How did this Cluster come about? Nathan: I was at a conference in India last year where I met Dr. Sedevi Angami – the Director of the Christian Institute of Health Sciences and Research [CIHSR] in north-east India. He was telling me that he thinks it’s really important to network and link in order to improve community health. And so I said ‘that’s just what the Arukah Network Clusters are about'! I then explained the Cluster model to him. And Sedevi just caught the vision. He can look at the big picture, and he’s the champion to make it happen.
There’s quite a few programmes and organisations in north-east India that are working in community health and development and disability. And he has found a lot of enthusiasm from them to come together. So he will be Cluster Mobiliser. He’s a busy guy – but he’s a very capable leader. Jake: And tell us about this North East region of Assam and Nagaland? Nathan: India is still a largely rural population, and the concentration of poverty, marginalisation and poor access to healthcare is in the rural areas. And the north-east is very rural. It’s spread out and mountainous. Our meeting happened in Dimapur - one of the major centres - but a lot of the organisations who are joining the Cluster exist in very rural areas. And travel is difficult – quite a few people travelled overnight for twelve or fourteen hours to attend!
Jake: How was the launch? I hope people felt it was worth the journey! Nathan: They definitely did. It was a three-day meeting at CIHSR and there were about thirty of us. I was only there to help facilitate, and so too were Robert and Jubin from the Uttarakhand Cluster. And we became very aware right away that a lot of people were feeling the benefit of just coming together, because there’s so much to gain just by being in the same room and hearing about different people’s work: their stories, ideas, simple solutions, and collaborations that don’t require a lot of work. And that took up most of the first day, which is great because it gives people the chance to know who else is out there and what they’re doing and how they can link together to to have even more impact. The second day was spent looking at how to co-operate together and deciding the priority areas to work on together. It was a bit like a ‘SWOT analysis’: what are their strengths and weaknesses? How can they overcome them through working together and co-operating? Then they came up with the number of areas they thought they would be able to work together on, and then on the third day they developed an action plan and appointed a committee to help the action plan go forward and continue meeting. Jake: So what will the Cluster focus on? Nathan: Disability will be a major focus. It’s something they all encounter in their work. It’s an area of need they identified, but it’s also an area of expertise they identified amongst themselves too. So they have decided to design and deliver training on disability – which I think will be a ‘quick-win’ for them. They couldn’t do this alone, but they can do it together, because there’s a diversity of different skills they have related to disability: legal, rehabilitation, government disability programmes, community-based rehabilitation. This is an area that traditionally is not very well done by government, churches or NGOs. It tends to slip through the cracks. And so they would like to get this training accredited by the government and then deliver it more widely. This is something that they’re very capable of doing. Jake: The Uttarakhand Cluster has a focus on disability too. Will there be links between the North East Cluster and Uttarakhand? Nathan: Yes there will. Robert and Jubin from Uttarakhand were with us, and they also lead the disability work of their Cluster. Jubin works in disability– she’s the coordinator for the disability network across India, and a number of people at the launch meeting have links with that group. Also we’re having a disability workshop at the Cluster meeting in Uttarakhand next month. So the idea is that somebody would come from the North-East Cluster, both to see how Uttarakhand operates but also to get some training.
Jake: It would be good to hear about your role in northern India over the years, Nathan. How did it come about? Nathan: In terms of public health, India is an important place to be. There’s 1.2 billion people and around 250 million live below the poverty line, and there’s every public health issue you can imagine. It’s a melting pot for research and programmes, and it’s exciting to be able to make a difference in responding to the huge human need. It’s a unique place in that regard. For me it all began in 2002 when I met people who were working here, one of them being Dr. Ted Lankester from our network. An opportunity came up to train and work with community health organisations, to provide healthcare at the grassroots, and I felt it was where I can best use my God-given skills, and so I relocated to India to work in that capacity. Jake: Have you seen much progress in terms of people’s health and wellbeing over the last sixteen years? Nathan: Very much so in the cities, and less so in rural areas. People think India has plenty of wealth and no longer needs development assistance. And it does have some big businesses, international companies and some very rich people , but these are in the cities. It’s actually one of the most inequitable countries in the world in terms of the difference between the poor and rich. You do see some change in rural areas: increased electricity supply, increased mobile phone coverage, but that just reflects that the whole world has changed in those sixteen years I guess. And there’s maybe more access in terms of roads, but even so the government health schemes don’t always infiltrate to the more rural isolated areas. So actual, basic healthcare – what’s available at the rural level – hasn’t really improved dramatically. These things take a long time. In this context, there's an important space for community-based organisations to provide basic healthcare, train and be trained, and work to address the needs of the marginalised and poor. They can’t do this alone. The Arukah model provides an efficient model whereby we can help each other better reach out to and respond to the needs of the poor and needy in our areas. Together is better! For more news from the new North East Cluster, sign up to our newsletter.