There is little that strikes as remarkable about T.Begur as one drives through this sleepy town located 35 kms away from Bengaluru city. But a lane to the left of the Bengaluru-Pune National Highway has been an unassuming host to a 43-year-old legacy, evident in a signboard directing the public towards Padmashri Dr B. Ramana Rao Road. With a walk down this road on any Sunday morning, it is easy to see why. Serpentine queues of men and women stretch out on either sides of a gated compound, jostling to enter every time the gate is opened. A harried guard hollers into his loudspeaker, appealing for order. Meanwhile, vehicles frequently lurch to a halt bringing old men and women, struggling to walk on their spindly legs.
The largely elderly crowd with diseases ranging from asthma to arthritis visit the village to consult Dr. Ramana Rao, a physician and cardiologist who is well-known in the city’s medical circles. They receive a patient hearing from the doctor of their medical and sometimes personal woes and are prescribed medicines and basic treatments, free of charge. The patients are also served lunch which could perhaps be their only meal of the day. They hail from places falling within a radius of as far as 150 kms, an indication of the absence of fundamental healthcare in vast stretches in and around the state capital.
The doctor has been running the free village clinic since 15th August 1973, sustaining the service on his personal income alone. An enclosure has been built close to his farmhouse for meeting patients. The venture has been successful because of a cluster of people who back Dr Rao’s vision. Right from the guard to the nurses to volunteers distributing medicines and meals, they work to ensure systematised functioning of the service.
“My parents are totally responsible for what I am doing today. They inculcated the thought in my mind that I should serve the people. Ultimately, it boiled down to becoming a doctor,” said the Padmashri awardee as he explained the reason behind the idea of free medical service. During his days as a student of medicine, his parents encouraged him to be a doctor for the rural poor. In the past 43 years, not a single Sunday in T.Begur has been skipped.
Most patients who come seeking help suffer from ordinary ailments due to the absence of the very basic of healthcare needs. Dr Rao illustrates this with an anecdote about Jayamma, a mother of six children, who was brought to the clinic in a bullock-cart. “She was absolutely pale and struggling to breathe. Her face was swollen due to low haemoglobin. This was due to frequent deliveries,” he said. A Deriphyllin injection costing 10 rupees and a dosage of Lasix IV was all that was needed to ease her breathlessness, facilitating further treatment. The absence of these easily available medicines in rural areas often proves fatal for the poor.
A philanthropic mission like Dr Rao’s clinic would obviously demand enormous manpower and funds. Over the course of time, the number of people making their way to T.Begur has seen a phenomenal increase, thanks to word of mouth publicity. On an average, Dr Rao sees 900-1200 patients per Sunday. In fact, the number of patients treated by Dr Rao touched 2 million on 15th August this year.
That the doctor’s popularity in the state’s rural areas is on an upward trajectory is good news. But the high footfall is imposing a strain on the clinic’s existing finances. “It has come to a state where it has gone beyond the scope of a single individual to fund the clinic. We are dealing with 1000 + patients. The cost per patient can be anywhere between 200 to 500 rupees,” said Dr Abhijit Bhograj, endocrinologist and Dr Rao’s son. They also require more doctors, nurses and volunteers to meet the rising demands at the clinic.
The clinic also organizes specific programmes such as cataract surgeries, deworming treatment for children and hygiene initiatives. “Over 700 toilets have been constructed. To go with the national programme of Swacch Bharat, we are also implementing Swasth Bharat. These multiple schemes which have been initiated simultaneously over the last 5 years require funding,” Dr Bhograj added.
One only needs to talk to one of the thousands of patients who flock to Dr Rao’s clinic to understand his stature among the people. Mohammad Sirad, hailing from Nelamangala has been consulting the doctor for past 15-20 years. “We are not even charged a single rupee and are given free medicines and food. Our health is in check because of the regular medications from the doctor,” he said.
The volunteers look up to the doctor with utmost respect. Rahmatullah Baig travels to the clinic from Doddabalapur every Sunday to lend a helping hand. “I wanted to do good work and hence joined hands with the doctor. I want to work here till my last breath,” said Baig.
Evidently, the clinic has positively impacted several lives, not just in terms of health but also by offering a sense of fulfilment that comes with pitching in for a good cause. While basic healthcare continues to elude rural India, such ventures which offer respite to many must be sustained with the collective co-operation of society. To ignore the health of India’s villages is to ignore the well-being of the country as a whole.