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Lounge Heroes | Ramchandra Godbole: Taking healthcare to Chhattisgarh's adivasis

An Ayurvedic doctor from Maharashtra, Ramchandra Godbole has been working amongst the tribal communities of Bastar for over two decades

Ram Godbole, 60, Ayurvedic doctor.
Ram Godbole, 60, Ayurvedic doctor.

Since 1990, Ramchandra Godbole, 60, has lived in Chhattisgarh with his wife, running a community health centre and introducing initiatives to empower Bastar’s Adivasi communities. It has not been easy, admits the Ayurvedic doctor, who comes from Satara, in Maharashtra. Decades of armed insurgency and a state-backed crackdown have eroded the social fabric of the region. Its residents have been left intimidated and embittered by their interactions with the “outside world". Thirty years later, Dr Godbole says his task is far from finished. But now, he adds, “this is home".

The Godboles live in Barsur village, nearly 35km from Dantewada city, in a simple two-room house with brick walls and sloping tin roofs, surrounded by lush forest. Over a video call, Dr Godbole points to an ambulance parked some distance from his house. “The locals here barely have money to afford medicines, let alone transport," he says. “So we took it upon ourselves."

What made him want to live and work there? “I started thinking about it when I was around 18-19, after I read a book about Albert Schweitzer," he says. Schweitzer, born in 1875, was a pianist and a missionary from the erstwhile German empire. At age 30, he took up medicine and set up a hospital in central Africa for vulnerable communities. His work earned him the Nobel peace prize in 1952.

Inspired, Dr Godbole joined the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a voluntary organization that works for Adivasi welfare, in Nashik after graduating in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery from Satara. For the first few years, he worked in the rural parts of Nashik, serving the healthcare needs of the Bhil community that lives along the border between Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. At age 28, he was asked to move to Barsur and revive a clinic that had been defunct for a year and a half.

“The ashram people told me, don’t go alone. Get married first," he says. “I thought, who would marry me when I am going to such a remote place? But I got lucky." Sunita, a Pune-based social activist, was already working on women-empowerment initiatives and literacy drives in the city. In Dr Godbole, she found a partner who was just as passionate about social work.

Two weeks on, the Godboles moved to Bastar. For most of its residents, mantriks (faith healers) were the first line of treatment. “People would seek you out only if the mantriks failed. And it was never as simple as walking into your clinic. If someone was sick, they would stay in the forests nearby, light a fire and create some smoke. You were expected to follow it and come to the spot," says Dr Godbole.

The reason, he realized, was that the prospect of venturing out of the forest, seeking help from outsiders, was daunting. “Once I offered to take one of my patients to a hospital in Jagdalpur for treatment. I didn’t see him again." He eventually figured out why. “For many, going to a city is like going to a foreign country and getting lost. Having little money, lack of literacy, and inability to speak the language complicates things. Any paperwork, like procuring a death certificate, is a Himalayan task."

The only solution was to provide healthcare in the village, at the bare minimum cost. At his clinic, Dr Godbole would examine patients for illnesses and ferry the critical cases to neighbouring cities. He worked on building trust and addressing misconceptions. “For example, many think you can only get better if you get an injection. And the more you take, the better it is." It took time, and persistence, but he started getting a regular stream of patients. He also learnt the local Halbi language so he could communicate better. It helped that Sunita had set up an Adivasi women’s collective to help ensure a fair price for those selling forest produce like mahua, raw mangoes and tamarind.

The Godboles had to go back to Satara in 2002 to take care of his sick father. By the time they returned in 2010, the state government had launched tele-consultation and an emergency phone helpline: 108. But Dr Godbole was still the only doctor for miles.

“I kept thinking, I can only service people within 15-20km from a clinic. But what about the neighbouring districts, which have hundreds of Adivasi villages but no one willing to go there?" In 2012, Dr Godbole suspended his clinic and started conductingday-long medical camps thrice a month, one camp per village, starting from 11am, until everyone was attended to.

A chunk of his work is follow-up. So he launched “Arogya-mitra Mandal", an initiative to train village youths in first-aid, disease prevention and coordinating the course of treatment. So far, Dr Godbole says, they have trained around 65 people.

Apart from individual contributors, Dr Godbole’s main funder is the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “I am not driven by any ideology," says the doctor. “I wanted to work for the Adivasis, which is why I joined them all those years ago. This, to me, is no less than worshipping god."

Did the Maoist insurgency and the paramilitary forces in the region create problems? “We can’t really discuss these things on phone," he chuckles nervously. “But you have to convince them you have no interests beyond offering healthcare facilities. People cooperate with those genuinely willing to help but that trust has to be established."

For the past few years, a cardiologist, Mukund Karmalkar from Hyderabad, has been joining Dr Godbole at the healthcare camps three days a month. His goal, Dr Godbole says, is to free the region of malaria, tuberculosis and anaemia, three diseases that are rampant. “It might be a preposterous ambition," he says, “but we sure can try."

Did he ever feel like giving up? “I love my job," he says. “I work with the hope that more people take a cue and join me, especially the local youth. Until then, I will do it the best I can."

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