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Meet Dr Bharat Champaneria, bringing healthcare and nutritional awareness to rural Gujarat for over 40 years

Dr Champaneria returned from overseas to live and work in the region, and contribute significantly to bring sustainable development to healthcare at the grassroots.

May 18, 2022 1:51:23 pm

NEW DELHI: For the last forty years, Dr Bharat Champaneria — trustee at the Indrashil Kaka-Ba and Kala Budh Public Charitable Trust, the CSR arm of Cadila Pharmaceuticals — has been working to improve the life of people living in Hansot, a village in the Bharuch district of Southern Gujarat.

After training to become a doctor, Dr Champaneria returned from overseas to pursue his true calling: living and working in the region and contributing significantly to bring sustainable development to healthcare at the grassroots.

In an interaction with Indian Express, he talked more about his work, the challenges faced in the last few decades and the growth that has happened in the region, besides the impact of the pandemic, what lies ahead in terms of healthcare, and starting project SAAHAS, which is ‘Strengthening Access and Awareness to Health in Hansot’.


In your journey of 40 years of working to improve the health of people living in Hansot, what are some of the challenges you faced?

Hansot is a backward area. In the 70s and 80s, healthcare facilities here were poor. There were no good hospitals or dispensaries. Ours was the only centre people would visit for medical treatments, and [before that] there were a few general physicians, who were not well-trained. Sanitation, public health and hygiene was in a bad shape; potable drinking water facility was not there. Transport and connectivity was poor as well.

Children suffered from malnutrition and anemia and people would travel to Ankleshwar or Surat for treatment, sometimes losing their life as well. The challenges were many: lack of trained medical manpower, paramedics, logistical and infrastructural problems. All of it inspired me to start work here.

[Hansot] is my native place, I was born here. My schooling also happened in this area. I would see the pain and plight of people, and it reinforced my conviction to work here.

Tell us about project SAAHAS and the roadblocks faced in the pandemic.

We set up project SAAHAS in 2021, with the intention that we would devise and implement an integrated healthcare system by addressing problems of malnutrition, anemia, along with delivery of quality health services with dignity.

This is a tribal bed that lacks quality health services. There is social stigma and lack of trust, which has prevented people from accessing better health services. The pandemic added to this burden by disrupting access to many of the government programs, like health screening, midday meals, iron and folic acid tablets supplementation, and the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK), where children with disability or surgical problems are taken to tertiary care centers.

All government programs were suspended. With SAAHAS, we ensured all these programs restarted. And with our sustained push to government agencies, we were able to receive the full stock of iron and folic acid [supplements], making sure they reach schools and needy children. We created a synergy for the government to reactivate and restore the entire program. I’m happy that Hansot is the only block post-pandemic to have all the programs restarted, first in Gujarat.

What can you tell us about the health condition of children living in this area, particularly about their nutritional deficiency?

The children in this area suffer from acute malnutrition and sometimes chronic malnutrition, because of lack of access to nutrient-rich food and sometimes [in] the absence of critical components in the food.

Anemia is a major problem for young girls. Because of poverty, parents are unable to feed their children with nutritious food and they can’t afford to take them to distant healthcare centres, either. We ensured government-mandated schemes like health checkups at schools be restarted. Also, children are examined periodically for common signs of illnesses and referral is made for those who need critical interventions. This is the reason why the Kaka-Ba Hospital is here.

The SAAHAS team conducts house visits, provides guidance and support. They also help build trust in the healthcare system, and awareness and training programs for anganwadi workers.

What is the role played by anganwadi workers here?

The workers are an important component of the child healthcare ecosystem. They are responsible for monitoring the health status of children. They look after the children’s well-being, their food — making various recipes from the ration provided by the government.

They should have good communication skills, so they can work as catalysts between parents, children and government agencies. So, the role is significant. SAAHAS’ involvement has created a situation wherein they have meetings every month, on the status of malnutrition anemia, and healthy and balanced diet. I hope this training continues for another year and maybe many more years after that.

What about menstrual hygiene awareness , and any kind of stigma that has been done away with?

Menstrual hygiene is a universal problem; it is a problem everywhere in developing countries. There are some major challenges: government subsidised sanitary napkins are not available, there is lack of awareness, no WASH facilities, as in no water, sanitation and hygiene.

And there is a cultural silence, too, along with social stigma leading to misinformation and health issues. With the involvement of SAAHAS, we made sure girls are sensitised, conducting workshops where more than 500 girls were given training and knowledge. We educated them in terms of using sanitary napkins and their environment-friendly disposal.

We hope the scheme of providing free sanitary napkins by the government gets reactivated.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in promoting health in a remote part of India, and the improvements seen in all these years?

Challenges are the same for the entire country: there is a poor sharing of information between health workers, particularly when we try to address the problems of children. Health workers, schools, and government, we need to bridge this gap to have a holistic ecosystem. We should also work in unity for a change to be seen. There is a lack of awareness, there’s a lack of trained manpower, and I sometimes also see a lack of collaborative efforts.

There is a lack of digital connectivity. So, tele-medicine and tele-health remain dreams. There is a lack of diagnostic facility, and to arrive at a correct diagnosis is difficult. Most of the medical manpower is reluctant to go because they don’t want to compromise on making a correct diagnosis.

Dr Bharat Champaneria, Dr Bharat Champaneria interview, Dr Bharat Champaneria in Hansot Gujarat, rural healthcare, rural development, sustainable healthcare, Project SAAHAS, anganwadi workers, menstrual hygiene, nutritional deficiencies in children, indian express news Dr Champaneria said while there have been many challenges in the last few decades, growth has happened in the region, too.

There is low literacy level and poor employability. There is no good schooling, educational facilities. So doctors don’t go to rural areas, because they’re worried about their children’s education. All these factors have resulted into a situation where most of our rural part is facing issues related to access to the healthcare system.

The positive development is the Kaka-Ba Hospital. I spent my entire life here to make sure we have a good institutional healthcare system. And today, I can say we have been able to bring about a change.

This hospital is fully functional, it provides services 24X7. We not only provide primary care, but also secondary, and in some cases tertiary care as well. People from neighbouring states like Maharashtra, MP and Rajasthan come here. We are able to salvage many deaths and play a significant role in reducing the disease burden.

But at the same time, there are new challenges. We find substance abuse, alcoholism, and increased use of mobile phones that has resulted in mental health problems. When old challenges are addressed, new ones pop-up.

Tell us something about future projects.

We’ve been here for 40 years and enjoy credibility and reputation. I wonder if it should be leveraged for many things to happen in this area. Along with health, we have started work on many fronts, developing many villages. I want to make sure we develop it as a model village, so that other villages can also experience it.

We also simultaneously work in many fields like empowering women, sanitation, hygiene, forestation, animal husbandry and overall health, conducting many surgical camps. We work on renewable energy; we want to make villages carbon-free, zero pollution. So, we use the credibility and the respect that we command for overall development. I want to make this hospital one of excellence, an ideal rural setup, so that other areas in rural India can have similar facilities and learn from our experience.

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