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
The Indian Red Cross’s programmes are grouped
into four core areas:
• Promoting humanitarian principles and
• 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
• 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
• 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