Bringing light into remote tribal lives

Till the 1980s, when the Soliga tribals encountered outsiders, they would stare curiously, only to disappear soon after into the dense forests of the Biligirirangan Hills. Today, the fear in their eyes has been replaced with confidence; they use local buses to get to work and college in the nearest town. The day may not be far when they have their own first highly-trained allopathic doctor.

The tribals are a transformed people. Much of it is because of a man who might almost be Karnataka's barefoot doctor. Like the thousands of barefoot doctors, medical practitioners who went to work in the countryside of Mao's China, H Sudarshan was fresh out of medical school when he decided to serve in the remote parts that were the Soligas' home. He built a thatched hut in the middle of the dense forest and started the Vivekananda Girijana primary health centre for his tribal neighbours. The project was so successful that the model has been replicated in at least five other states, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Sudarshan's success was to enable the Soligas to trust him for worldy-wise advice just as much as for snake bite. The tribals, spread across 55 hamlets, initially viewed Sudarshan suspiciously.

The young doctor realized that education was crucial if the Soligas were to be healthy. A tiny school with just six tribal children opened its doors. It has 446 children today and is spread over 15 acres. Vasuki, a teacher who remembers the early days, says, "It wasn't easy to get these children enrolled in school in the beginning. When we visited the hamlets asking them to come to school, they would run and climb trees. Their parents would tell us we could take them, provided they came willingly."

Those who went to school were transformed. Jadeya Gowda was one of the original six students. He recalls that he was so unsophisticated and ignorant, he would even shy away from stepping on to a tarred road. The school meant that today, he is assistant professor at a forestry college in Coorg, even as he studies for a Ph D.

The Soligas very own barefoot doctor has earned high praise from no less than former president Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, who said it was "inspiring to see how an MBBS doctor has put all his dreams in mainstreaming the tribal citizens of Karnataka for the last 25 years."

Unusually, the doctor's intervention has failed to trample on the Soligas unique culture. Primary education is imparted in their language, Soliganudi and morning prayers are still offered to the Sun and Nature, as is traditional. School activities involve cultivation and wood collection to ensure Soliga children remain linked to the forest. And the primary health centres, run by the health trust, promote traditional tribal medicines and plants.

Gowda recalls, "When Dr Sudarshan visited our hamlets, I would stare at him, wondering why this stranger was spending so much time treating us. When he asked my parents to send me to school, I agreed to go, more out of curiosity."

Some of the barefoot doctor's proteges now help with his mission - as lab technicians and pharmacists. Tribal women too have been empowered to become nurses. For many, the doctor means the difference between life and death. It was only after he started to teach and treat the Soligas that they started to tie babies umbilical cords, which are traditionally left untied and the cause of high child mortality.