Amidst the tragedy of Covid-19, Dr. Hanumappa Sudarshan finds a silver lining in India’s remote regions
Right Livelihood Laureate Dr. Hanumappa Sudarshan, a physician working in India’s tribal regions, views the Covid-19 pandemic as a catalyst for positive change. For more than 40 years, Sudarshan has worked with tribal peoples to develop their health, education, livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. However, it was the urgent demands of the Covid-19 pandemic that significantly bolstered support for Sudarshan’s healthcare initiatives, presenting a unique opportunity to extend primary healthcare centres to India’s most remote regions.
India’s tribal peoples, constituting 8.6 per cent of the country’s population, encompass a diverse group of indigenous communities spread across the country. Though distinct in language, religion and culture, tribal peoples are united in their historical connection to, and harmonious existence with, the land.
However, the geographical remoteness of tribal regions creates significant barriers to accessing vital services such as education, electricity, and, most notably, healthcare.
Sudarshan recognised these challenges as early as 1980, making it his mission to “reach the unreached” and bring essential services to India’s tribal communities. His organisations, Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) and Karuna Trust, have worked towards this objective for the past 43 years, addressing the pressing healthcare needs of tribal communities while centring their culture and inherent health knowledge and practices.
“I wanted to work in a remote area after graduation,” said Sudarshan. “My motto was to start healthcare where healthcare is not reached: in remote and conflict areas.”
Today, VGKK and Karuna Trust’s healthcare services reach an outstanding 1.5 million people. But, getting there has not been easy. A common challenge Sudarshan faces is collaborating with India’s public health system, which is commonly undermined by a lack of political will, insufficient resources and inadequate transparency.
“My work with state governments is from the taxpayers’ money, which is supposed to be for tribal development,” said Sudarshan. “But, it was not reaching them, so we fought that out and got the money.”
Rather than working against the public sector, Sudarshan has chosen to embrace its strengths and collaborates with local governments to better serve tribal regions via a public-private partnership model.
These collaborations were instrumental during the Covid-19 pandemic when state governments scrambled to bring proper healthcare infrastructure and medical resources to vulnerable communities.
“We opened health centres in the government’s facilities instead of our own hospitals,” said Sudarshan. “And, in partnership with Vinod Khosla and others, we have been able to establish 10-bed ICUs in very remote areas to save lives.”
Interestingly, the very factor that hinders tribal communities’ access to modern healthcare—geographical remoteness—shielded them from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The tribals, because of their remoteness, were not as much affected as the people in the cities,” said Sudarshan. “But, we immunised them and protected them. They are very few people that have died due to Covid-19 in the tribal regions.”
At the same time, Sudarshan harnessed the government and public’s heightened concern for healthcare during the pandemic to bridge the remaining gaps in the communities’ healthcare accessibility.
“We got a lot of support for strengthening healthcare for Covid-19 management,” said Sudarshan. “Now, in the absence of Covid, we are using it for primary healthcare.”
These health centres are far from the makeshift Covid units typical during the pandemic. Instead, Sudarshan was able to bring state-of-the-art healthcare infrastructure to India’s tribal regions, including PCR RT machines, which can be used for viral detection, genetic screening and pathogen identification.
“Covid also brought more technology to remote areas, like PCR RTmachines,” said Sudarshan. “Now, we can use them for tuberculosis and other things.”
Today, when reflecting on VGKK and Karuna Trust’s efforts during the pandemic, Sudarshan cannot help but see a silver lining.
“We have ICUs in every remote area thanks to Covid,” said Sudarshan. “It brought better health care to the people. We should thank Covid for strengthening our primary health care. In that way, it’s a blessing for us.”