The joy of giving and saving lives cannot be compensated by monetary benefits.

PadmashreeDr. H Sudarshan is the Founder and Honorary Secretary of Karuna Trust. Karuna Trust has pioneered and implemented successful Public-Private-Partnership models with government and corporate to strengthen the primary healthcare and reached out to over 1.5 million people of underserved communities with affordable and quality healthcare. Dr. Sudarshan holds an MBBS Degree from Bangalore Medical College.
Dr. Sudarshan has dedicated his life towards working for the upliftment of the Soliga tribal communities in Karnataka. In 1981, he set up the Vivekananda GirijanaKalyana Kendra (VGKK), which has blossomed into a sustainable tribal development program with only a few peers in the country. He has shared his wide experience by volunteering with the Government in his Chairmanship of the Karnataka Governments’ Task Force on Health & Family welfare as well as leading a ‘battle against the ‘epidemic of corruption’ as the Vigilance Director of the Karnataka Lokayukta (Ombudsman).

Dr H Sudarshan shares with Marie Banu his work with the tribals.

About your childhood, education?
I was born in a cowshed, as my mother was not allowed to deliver inside the house. I come from this background! My father came to Jayanagar in Bengaluru and I studied in a school here. At the age of 12, I accompanied my father to a village and he literally died on my lap due to lack of medical aid. It was then I decided to become a doctor and dedicate my life for those who did not have access to medicine.
At 16, although I had scored good marks in the board exam, I could not pursue higher studies as I was below the required age by two months. This was because I got a double promotion in school. I worked in a flourmill for one year and earned 110 rupees a day. I saved my salary and paid for the medical college entrance fee.
I read about Swami Vivekananda and I received motivation from him. It was clear for me that I should reach the unreached and save their lives. I joined the medical school, and after my internship worked in Ramakrishna Mission Hospital in the Himalayas. I heard about BR hills, and in 1980, I came here and started my work with the Soliga tribes.

You have been working for more than three and a half decade with the Soliga tribes. Can you please share your experiences?
I started with curative health – saving people from snake bites, pneumonia. Then I found that the community were prone to many epidemics like whooping cough, hence I engaged in immunization – Community Health. I found that I did not have pills for poverty, so I had to find ways to get access to land and forest resources. This became community development and we have been fighting for the last 34 years for land rights. We finally succeeded two years ago by getting land rights and community rights for minor forest produce.
We were in midst of a wild life sanctuary, and today it is a tiger reserve – a biological hotspot. We call this sustainable development – Biodiversity conservation and livelihood of tribal people. It was a gradual evolution from curative health to community health to community development to sustainable development.
We therefore focus our work in areas of health and education. We started a school with six children in 1981 and two out of the six have become doctorates—one in forestry and the other in social work. These are the first generation learners and several graduates and post-graduates have come up.
We also have income generation activities for them, mainly based on the forest produce and we have a cooperative where the forest produce is collected, processed and sold. We have also promoted a lot of women self-help groups.

What is your concept of tribal development?
Our concept of tribal development or my own understanding is that we should first go and live with the people, understand their strengths—the traditional systems which made them survive— and build on those strengths. This is the basic theory! We need to also understand their core values, culture so that we can promote this in their education system.
I do not believe in bringing them to the so called ‘national mainstream’ as diversity is their strength. Development should be based on their decisions – self-determination. The tribals can’t live in the past as they do not have access to the forest as before. So, they have to change their lifestyle a little. They now have land for cultivation. Within these limitations, we need to see how best we can preserve their value system, family system, and other social systems to bring about development.

About Karuna Trust and its programmes?
Jadaya, the first doctorate from the tribal school is now the President of Karuna Trust. Many tribal people themselves are part of VGKK and they are taking care of it. We also have income generation activities to sustain tribal development as we were depending on grants and donations. Now, we have Gorukana, an eco-tourism project which is managed by 25 tribal youth. The guests are taken on a trip to the forest and are exposed to the tribal life. All the profits from this social enterprise goes to the tribal development.
All tribals have got their land titles and participate in the Panchayat Raj system. We had a Soliga woman as the vice-president of the ZillaPanchayat, we also have women heading the Taluk and Graampanchayats.
We found leprosy spreading in the tribal areas in the foot hills. Whatever the tribals had was recent infection, hence we wanted to work on leprosy eradication as it was hyperendemic in Yelandurtaluk. Thus we launched the Karuna Trust! We eliminated leprosy in Yelandurtaluk and we found that there was a particular type of epilepsy called ‘hot water epilepsy’ as named by Dr. KS Mani, Director of Nimhans, wherein when one takes a hot water bath they get seizures. We conducted an epilepsy control programme for the rural people living in the entire Yelandurtaluk and brought it under control by cost effective intervention.
We found that the government also had its own infrastructures—primary health care centres in the areas where we were working. I met the Secretary and asked him to partner with us instead of duplicating efforts. That’s how the PPP came and the government agreed to give two primary health centres in the tribal areas which we manage. At first, the government granted a 75% funds and then 90% funds for this project.
After launching this model in South Karnataka, we have now moved to Northern Karnataka as well. Arunachal Pradesh government invited us and this place is more difficult than the BR Hills. Even today, most areas do not have electricity or telephone connectivity. We took up the challenge, and now we have 11 PHCs in Arunachal Pradesh, 11 in Meghalaya, and 3 in Manipur.
Therefore, we started our work in Veerapan’s territory and then we worked in Naxalite areas of Karnataka and Orissa, and we worked in insurgency areas in the North East. So, we take up very remote areas and places where there are conflicts and difficult situations to render health care.
At present, we are reaching out to about 1.5 million people and through our primary health care, taking one indicator of infant mortality rate; we have prevented 550 infant deaths in the last year’s intervention.

Can you share a quote of yours to inspire our readers?
The joy of giving and saving lives cannot be compensated by monetary benefits. There is a great joy in giving, and that is what I have realised. One of my classmate, an oncologist who earns more than a million dollars, once said to me: “You are leading a much more meaningful life.”