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Dunant’s spirit lives
on in India

 

Humanitarian action is the fruit of a collective effort, but to be effective it needs the leadership of experienced and committed people. Red Cross Red Crescent spent some time with two such exceptional individuals who work for the gigantic Indian Red Cross Society.

 

Krishan Gulati, a former lieutenant-colonel in the infantry, fought with the British in Burma and, after independence, with the Indian army against Pakistan and China. On retirement in 1979, the veteran accepted the post of honorary president of the Delhi branch of the Indian Red Cross. “At 56, an infantry soldier has outlived his usefulness,” he jokes. Since then, Gulati has been the driving force behind numerous projects, notably the building of a paediatric and maternity hospital in the east of the capital. Inaugurated in 1983, the General Maternity and Child Care Hospital has continued to blossom in response to new needs.

“There was no medical coverage for displaced people in this burgeoning part of the town,” he recalls. He found the site, on a reclaimed swamp, before construction began. With the massive rural exodus under way today and the resulting population explosion, the hospital plays a central role, in particular its two outpatient clinics, one of which offers free consultations. The hospital has more than 100 staff, including a dozen doctors and 30 nurses. Charges for care are reasonable, and of the 100 beds, ten are reserved at no cost for the poorest living on 100 rupees (US$ 2.5) a day. Seven ambulances, all donated, provide patient transport. “I am happy to see all these children being born… There are around 800 a year,” he says, adding: “I would like to open a school next to the hospital.”

Calm and tenacity

When Gulati has a project in mind, he is unstoppable. In teeming Old Delhi, he has set up a dispensary for people who have been left behind by India’s economic growth. Many of the patients are porters in the neighbouring dried fruit market, who frequently fall prey to accidents. Gulati is also a founder of the Henry Dunant School, a private non-profit institution for some 200 pupils from humble backgrounds.

In 1983, at Indira Gandhi’s suggestion to ‘do integration’, Gulati remembered how as an officer he had organized camps for ‘group leaders’. The idea gave birth to the Indian Red Cross’s first interstate camps, bringing together 10- to 14-year-olds from all over India, mainly from rural areas.

As he paces the hospital corridors with a slightly stiff walk, Gulati responds to questions with a smile, punctuated by the occasional wink. Of his 85 years, he has devoted 30 to the Red Cross, with no respite and no thought for reward.

Working on all fronts in Assam

Renuka Devi Barkataki lives in the north-east of India in Guwahati, Assam, a name revered by tea enthusiasts. She is the honorary secretary of the Indian Red Cross in Assam, where she is known as Badew, ‘Big Sister’. For a quarter of a century, this woman has devoted her life to serving the people of an area that is all too prone to disaster, be it flooding from the rising waters of the Brahmaputra River or violence linked to armed insurrection or ethnic and tribal tensions. Despite severe arthritis in her knee, Badew travels the length and breadth of the state, setting up projects to extend immunization, medical care and relief to the poorest. In her 75 years, she has seen it all. A former social activist and member of parliament, she was imprisoned during the state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi… and later appointed Minister of Social Affairs.

Inscribed on the entrance to the Red Cross hospital in Guwahati are the words: “If you have nothing to do, do not do it here.” Since it was established as a maternity facility in 1970, the hospital has expanded and developed. It now has 35 beds and provides every kind of obstetric care, as well as operating a pre- and postnatal clinic. Training is also on offer. About 90 Assamese women are accommodated in the hostel and are trained over 18 months to become ‘female health workers’ within the framework of the National Rural Health Mission. “For each new intake, 15 places are reserved for the most disadvantaged, mainly girls employed in the tea plantations,” explains Badew.

Each year during the monsoon, the Red Cross is on a knife edge. In 2007, floods struck on three separate occasions, the most recent in August. During the emergency phase, the Assam branch distributes relief and sends out mobile medical teams, who get around by boat. In the most vulnerable areas such as Hajo and Chorabari, the local branch, with the support of the government, the Indian Red Cross, the International Federation and the ICRC, erected raised platforms 3.5 metres high to provide a safe haven for the affected population. Up to 3,000 people, along with their livestock, sought shelter on these man-made ‘islands’ and received blankets, clothes and food during their stay. “In Assam, people are prepared for floods and they know how to cope with them,” says Badew, as she shows us around the sanitary facilities installed on the platforms.

Floods and ethnic violence have decimated many families. The Red Cross runs two rehabilitation centres for orphans, where they are well looked after and assured of an education. Here again, Badew and her team have enabled the youngsters to find tangible solutions to their problems, with the initial support of the Swiss Red Cross.

How would Badew evaluate their overall performance? “Our Red Cross branch is on the State Disaster Management Committee, which is a good sign… Of the 32 district branches, 20 are very active, 8 are semi-active and 4 in violence-prone areas are not very active.”

Efforts are constantly under way to promote awareness of the Red Cross’s work, as public and private support is needed more than ever. As part of this process, the Assam branch recently began first-aid training for the traffic police and big private sector companies.

“The ladies in Assam weave their dreams on their looms,” said Mahatma Gandhi, whom Badew met when she was 15 years old. She keeps a photo of him on the wall of her sparsely furnished office, next to a portrait of Henry Dunant.

Driving back to the airport, I reflect on the rapid change and modernization that India is undergoing. While the rich get richer and the middle classes accumulate ever more wealth, the poor and disadvantaged have been left by the wayside. For them, globalization has brought no benefits. My thoughts then turn to the two volunteers who have devoted their long years of retirement to giving a glimmer of hope to the forgotten masses, and in so doing embody Dunant’s dream.

 


Renuka Devi Barkataki, honorary secretary, in her office at the Red Cross hospital in Guwahati, Assam.
©JEAN-FRANÇOIS BERGER / ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indian Red Cross Society

The Indian Red Cross’s programmes are grouped into four core areas:
Promoting humanitarian principles and values.
Disaster response. This continues to represent the largest portion of Indian Red Cross work, with assistance to millions of people annually, ranging from refugees to victims of natural disasters. Disaster preparedness activities aim to make communities more aware of the risks they face and how to cope when disaster strikes.
Healthcare in the community. Too many people die because they have no access to even the most basic health services and elementary health education. Through these programmes, the Red Cross aims to enable communities to reduce their vulnerability to disease and to prepare for and respond to public health crises.
Capacity-building programmes and activities, including management and volunteer training, improving branch structures, planning, fund-raising and gender equality.
For more information, visit www.indianredcross.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Krishan Gulati, honorary president, at his desk at the Delhi branch of the Indian Red Cross.
©JEAN-FRANÇOIS BERGER / ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.

 

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