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Taking Health Care to Rural India
Photo courtesy of Amit Jain. View additional photos and video via UCLA Today Online.

Taking Health Care to Rural India

Undergrads travel to India as volunteers for Project RISHI (Rural India Social and Health Improvement), a nonprofit organization committed to developing and transforming the poorest of Indian villages into progressive and modern communities.

Last year, Srivatsan led a team of 10 UCLA undergraduates who examined villagers for ailments. Communicable diseases are rife in the village, especially during the monsoons.

UCLA Today Online

By Ajay Singh    

SHOELESS CHILDREN on filthy village streets, dodging cattle and dogs. Families cooking in shingled huts next to cesspools of human waste. Flies and mosquitoes everywhere.

Appalling sights like these greeted a team of UCLA undergraduates during their visit last year to Vadamanappakkam, a southern Indian village about 100 miles from Chennai, one of India's major metropolises.

"I was taken aback by the level of poverty," recalled Amit Jain, a 4th-year neuroscience student of Indian origin who had seen poverty before elsewhere in India. He returned from his second trip to the village this past July. "It's a pretty nasty situation to live in."

But that's precisely why Jain and his teammates were there. They had traveled to India as volunteers for Project RISHI (Rural India Social and Health Improvement), a nonprofit organization committed to developing and transforming the poorest of Indian villages into progressive and modern communities. The mission is aptly summed up in RISHI's motto and prominently displayed on its Web site www.projectrishi.org — "Bringing healthcare where it is needed the most."

Founded in 2005 by Eri Srivatsan, adjunct professor of surgery at UCLA, RISHI is funded mostly by private donations. Several contributors are professors and students on campus who also serve on the organization's board of advisors and trustees.

Vadamanappakkam is RISHI's first undertaking, partly because Srivatsan was born there, but also because the village is near the city of Vellore, where one of India's most famous hospitals, the Christian Medical College, is located. Doctors at the college provide RISHI valuable advice on how to address health issues in the village, most of whose inhabitants are peasants or weavers.

Because children are the worst victims of Vadamanappakkam's underdevelopment, RISHI began its work in 2005 by building a four-foot-tall concrete wall around the village's only school playground, at a cost of $10,000. (The recreational area, meant for the village school's 1,000 students, was unprotected and had become vulnerable to both trespassers and grazing animals.)

Village residents suffer from an acute shortage of water. Recently, RISHI finished building a full-fledged medical clinic, run by a local doctor, that has one of the village's few — if not only — bathroom facilities. Last year, Srivatsan led a team of 10 UCLA undergraduates who examined villagers for ailments. Communicable diseases are rife in the village, especially during the monsoons.

However, "for the most part, these people suffer from excessive physical fatigue," Jain said. And although nearly all of the village's roughly 15,000 residents are poor, Jain and his teammates were surprised to discover that meager incomes weren't their most common complaint. Instead, their major grievance, underlying all others, was an acute shortage of water for drinking and sanitation.

Even the village's public bathrooms lack running water. And although there are plenty of hand pumps, the groundwater they deliver is undrinkable. As a result, the villagers rely on municipal tap water for drinking — never mind that it's about four times more polluted than what's acceptable in the United States.

Amit Jain (left) and other UCLA undergraduates standing in front of the village sign. What's more, villagers get just 30 minutes of tap water, and only every other day. "They have to be ready with buckets to fill up water that must last two days," Jain said, adding that fights over water are a common and distressing occurrence.

RISHI is talking to a range of international experts to determine the best way to tackle the village's most pressing health problem. But providing water is a complex issue. "If we increase the supply, there's a danger that the groundwater will get gradually depleted," Jain explained. "If we provide purified water, the villagers could lose the immunity they have to local water and would fall sick if they drink water outside their village."

A team of about a dozen UCLA undergraduates is currently in the village, conducting socioeconomic surveys and increasing their awareness about health issues. The students, in turn, are learning a lot from their experiences.

"It's a very interesting time for us — I've gained a new perspective as a student, a future doctor and a human being," said Jain. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."

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