Thursday, December 25, 2008

Doctors with Bags Full of Craft

This is an article from the October 2008 edition of Dishaa. You can also read about community-health workers, flood-relief efforts in Bihar, and a report on widows in Vidarbha in the newsletter.

In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease.” Since 1993, Tribal Health Initiative (THI) has shown what it takes to achieve this level of health. Working in the adivasi, rural, Sittilingi valley (Dharmapuri District, Tamil Nadu), THI has brought infant mortality down from 150 in the 1990s to 32 in 2007; maternal mortality is now non-existent. Where women used to give birth outside their home – in the dirt – because of a belief that evil spirits are released along with child-birth, they now do so in the presence of a trained birth attendant, called a “health auxiliary” (HA; usually an older woman from their village). These HAs also make sure that women get check-ups during pregnancy and after childbirth. But health is not the only thing these ladies do – when asked what their most important task is, they said in a flash, “promoting organic farming.”

Farmer Thirthan with his Turmeric harvest. Photo: THI

When Regi and Lalitha George, founders of THI, undertook a padayatra to take the pulse of the valley in 2004, the overwhelming issue facing people was getting a good price for their farm produce. “Farmers who practiced chemical-intensive farming found themselves in debt unless they had a very good crop,” says Regi. THI organized multiple workshops on organic farming techniques; now, farmers in Sittilingi valley grow cotton, turmeric and, of late, even rice organically. The costs of inputs have gone down and they now make profits from their farms. “We are into organic farming from the health point of view,” says Lalitha: farmers are urged to intercrop, and brinjal, millets and onions are grown alongside cash crops, promoting food security in the family even as cash crops provide income.

The Lambadi community, with support of the Health Auxiliaries, is reviving its traditional art of embroidery, which has fallen out of fashion with the rise of the sari (the Lambadis are nomads who migrated to the region from western India many generations ago). On Lalitha’s urging, increasing numbers of people in these villages are now rediscovering their art. Embroidered craft items are now sold, and provide extra income for the family. They proudly call their line of craft items Porgai – which means “pride” in the local language. “Our relatives are often surprised when the two of us,doctors,enter their house with bags full of crafts,” laughs Lalitha. Maybe it takes doctors who sell crafts to make social well-being, a key component of the WHO definition of health, a reality.

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