I still remember the words of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (Celebrated Indian Chemist) about research. He said ‘ Reseach is not meant to do for yourself, research is for the upliftment of people, of society.’
The story of Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang resonates exactly with the words of
Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. However, the story is not same for most of the researchers, especially medical professionals working in the public domain. Dr. Abhay Bang truly said-
“unfortunately, researchers often do research not for the community, but for their own peers. If you are an educated person working in places like this, even as you work with the people, your target audience knowingly or unknowingly is still your peers. Subconsciously, you are thinking, “What will I publish? What will I present at the conference? What would other non-profits or doctors like to hear?”
Unfortunately, in the limelight of news like celebrity gossip and politics, most people are not even heard about real heroes like Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang, who are working silently and making the world a better place to live for people.
So who is Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang and why you should know about them?
Well, Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang are like many of us who dreamt of making difference in the world, helping people to live better lives. The only difference is unlike most of us they put their thoughts into actions and have really left an impact on the lives of people.
Born in 1950, Wardha, Maharashtra Abhay Bang is a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Like his father, Gandhi’s thoughts left a deep impression on his mind. Probably that’s why only at the age of 13 he decided to serve people who are deprived of medical facilities in rural places of India.
He entered medical college when he was 17 and there he met his future wife Rani. Soon they become good friends as their thoughts and aspirations match. After finishing college, they began working in Kanhapur, a village near Wardha. But they realized merely running a clinic is not enough to solve people’s health problems. They moved to John Hopkins University, USA, to better understand how to carry out public health research.
After returning from the USA, they had many options, they could have chosen any city to work. However, their dream of serving needy people took them to a tribal village in the west of Maharashtra, Gadchiroli and started SEARCH (Society for Education Action and Research in Community Health) in 1986. On asking why they have chosen Gadchiroli as their vase they said-
“We chose to go where the problems are and not operate out of cities where infrastructure such as electricity and office facilities existed but were far removed from the challenges plaguing rural India,” says Dr Abhay Bang. Gadchiroli had other advantages too. “It had a unique rural and tribal population mix and offered us an ideal test-bed to research diseases affecting both tribal and rural people,” explains Dr Rani Bang”
Everything was going fine, until one incident which became the turning point of their research. When Dr. Bang recalls that incident he said-
“It was one of the turning points, before the hospital we constructed had been built. One rainy season, it was pouring outside and it was dark. I was relaxing in the evening after a day’s work. Suddenly somebody knocked on my door. It was a young woman carrying a tiny child. The child was skin and bones. I held the baby up as there was no examination table and started examining him. He was malnourished and had severe dehydration and pneumonia. Within minutes of arriving at that diagnosis, the baby stopped breathing. I couldn’t do anything.
“The woman had come from a village 4 km away. I asked her: ‘Why didn’t you come earlier? “
She replied by telling Dr. Bang her story: her husband was an alcoholic and spent all his earnings on drink. During pregnancy, she had not eaten because of an ingrained tribal belief that if she did, it would make the baby too heavy to deliver. She developed malaria while pregnant, but there was no money to buy drugs to treat her. When the baby was born, she fed him diluted milk. Then when the baby fell sick, she took him to a witch doctor who sacrificed a chicken for 200 rupees. When that didn’t work, she started walking to Dr. Bang but a river that lay across her path had swollen and burst its banks. She could not cross because there was no bridge: the government had promised to build one, but it had been lying incomplete for years.
“I felt very miserable when she told me this story,” says Dr Bang. “That baby died because of many factors: poverty, a wrong belief system, an alcoholic husband and corruption.”
The child’s death affected them deeply and they turn their focus to infant mortality. To their surprise, they found that almost 121 children died within one year of birth and the major cause was pneumonia. Highest in the country at that time. In search of a solution, they discovered a breath counter instrument to diagnose pneumonia. The breath counter instrument found to be very effective and once diagnosed, infants were given antibiotics to cure.
Within just two years, infant mortality rate reduces up to 80 percent in the district. Their method found to be very crucial in India and later adopted by many countries all over the world.
According to WHO norms- ill-born infants should be rushed to a hospital but in Gadchiroli district, hospitals were far and few. This forced the couple to think about building a modern hospital near the village. However, for people of Gadchiroli, there were problems with modern hospitals. What was that? According to Dr. Bang-
” The villagers said they were scared to go to hospital,” he says. “When we asked why, they told us something fascinating. They said: ‘Your doctors and nurses drape themselves in white clothes. We wrap dead bodies in white shawls. How can you save lives if you are dressed like a dead person?’ They said: ‘When they admit a patient, we can only visit between 3pm and 6pm and we don’t have wristwatches. We don’t have anywhere to stay in town, so we go back to the village. The patient doesn’t want to stay on their own.”
They soon understood the western style of the hospital is not going to work here. Dr. Bang’s solution was to build a hospital consisting of a series of huts that looked like a tribal village so that patients could stay with their relatives. They even named the hospital after the suggestion of villagers as ‘Maa Danteswari Dawakhana‘. This couple is the perfect example who showed being a doctor and a researcher doesn’t only mean to cure disease or collecting data but being sensitive to the patient’s emotions, their needs.
Later, SEARCH founded by the duo identified one woman from each village and trained her as a village health worker. Their training included checking the newborn’s weight, temperature, and breathing, maintaining hygiene, giving injections/antibiotics (if needed) and maintaining a complete record. The success of these health workers inspired the Indian government to initiate ASHA (Accredit Social Health Activist), a community health worker for every village. Not only the Indian government but policymakers from different countries visited Gadchoreli to implement health sector strategies of Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang in their countries.
The duo has also set up community-based de-addiction camps to free people from the addiction of alcohol which was a major problem in the district. In 1992 due to their movement government had to shut down all the licensed liquor shops in the district. These changed the lives of people in Gadchiroli.
Finally, the world has recognized their work. SEARCH has received the MacArthur Foundation International Award for creative and social work.
In 2005, TIME magazine honored the couple and included them in its list of 18 Global Health Heroes. Recently, they were awarded Padma Shri ( fourth highest civilian award in India) by the government of India.
Their life and work is a big lesson for people who think themselves as intellectuals. Research is not only about doing experiments in a laboratory and concluding about people’s lives based on that. According to Dr. Abhay Bang, there are three ways to conduct research-
- Research on the people: where one uses people as guinea pigs.
- Research for the people: where one try to find solutions for people’s problem.
- Research with the people: where one serve people by empowering them, develop solutions that involve people.
What did they get doing all these except few awards and interviews from media?
Of course, they didn’t start all these to achieve just recognition. They wanted to serve people, make a healthier lifestyle for them. One can see the satisfaction in their eyes when Dr. Rani Bang in one of her interviews said-
” When I look back over these 30 years, I feel very happy to see that child mortality has gone down, the women are now seeking care for their gynaecological problems. We may not have earned money but the love and affection whicy they give, that is the most important thing.”
After getting the Padma Shri and awards from all over the world, they got many attractive offers from governments and other organizations. But they chose to stay back and restrict their work to Gadchiroli.
“Without Gadchiroli, Rani and I are zero. This is our lab, where we see a problem, measure it, develop solutions, field-test them … and when we succeed, we try to bring about a policy change that benefits people across the country,” explains Dr. Abhay Bang.
Hats off to such people who are driving the country, the world towards growth and making the world a better place for everyone. The least we can do is to recognize such people and take some inspiration from them to use our knowledge for the betterment of us and people around us. And I must tell you about one of my favorite quote from Dr. Abhay Bang-
” Think locally, Act globally”
One favorite quote of the duo by Albert Einstien-
Have a compassionate week. Until next time. – Joy