ROOT CAUSE – The barefoot doctors of Pen-Panvel

GetimageMaharashtra, November 07, 2011: The area around Karnala Bird Sanctuary in Panvel has lately been drawing in customers shopping not so much for a view of the threetoed kingfisher as for the rareprince story plant. Impute this to nurseries along the old Bombay-Goa highway through villages like Barapada and Tara that have more to interest the eye by way of botanic curiosities than avian sightings in a near-barren sanctuary. Among those invested in horticulture here is a nondescript Jesuit Mission in Tara that has been trying to cultivate not so much a hothouse as a habit.

    The priests—all of two—of the Janahitha Vikas Trust (JVT) have, for the last four years, been rooting for villagers to return to herbal and ayurvedic forms of therapy. Among the several development projects they run for the Katkari adivasis here is a herbal programme that shows villagers how to identify and utilise medicinal herbs as curatives.

    Set back from the highway, on an eight-acre plot across from the rather dodgy landmark of Narayan Rane’s weekend getaway, JVT is where the adivasis from Pen-Panvel come to learn about their rights: to have panchayati laws broken down; to get a grip on ration rules; to identify useful government schemes; and avail of vocational training like sewing, carpentry and masonry. The herbal programme, which was founded four years ago, sets out to show the adivasis how to be
resourceful and self-reliant in matters of health. It invites two ayurveda specialists to hold sessions on phytotherapy, where they acquaint the class with different medicinal plants, teach them how to extract their juices and knock together remedial recipes for minor ailments like colds, diarrhea, scabies and fever. With primary health centres few and far between, andcommercial doctors charging over Rs 50, the mission hopes to ease the financial burden on poor adivasis by teaching them to find recourse in Nature.

    “A concoction of adulsa, tulsi, ginger and lemon grass cures colds; cactus oil is known to loosen stiffness from arthritis, and the sarpagandha or snakeroot is a natural anti-hypertensive and remedy for dysentery; the panphuti leaf with peppercorn is effective against kidney stones,” says Fr Diago D’Souza, director of JVT, cataloging the benefits of the herbs that grow on the grounds of the mission itself. Every year the mission distributes 15 new herbs, which it acquires from the Academy of Development Science at Kashele, to seven villages affiliated to the programme. This charity is made possible through funds raised by churches in Mumbai.

    Each village has two ‘health workers’ whose job it is to nurture herbal gardens in their village and help villagers prepare remedies. It is usually the women of the village’s self-help groups to whom the case for natural remedies is first made. A ‘herbal animator’ has the job of overseeing the entire project, hosting refresher courses and keeping interest (and the plants) alive.

    In the village of Banubaiwadi, Tulsa Hapse has attempted to maintain a herbal patch behind her house. But just like one’s medicine cabinet is forgotten until the time of illness, here too the herbs given by the mission are half-lost in a tangle of weeds. Fr D’Souza admits that erratic attention to the initiative is one of the challenges that bedevil the project. Although, Hapse says the patch is faithfully visited in times of minor maladies like colds and fever or for regenerative treatments. “I use tulsi and korphad (aloe vera) for coughs, and neem juice for stomach aches. Only when an illness persists for more than two days do we go three km down the hill to the doctor. He charges Rs 50 a visit,” she says. She points to a short green shrub with short needle leaves and identifies it as shatavari, a shrub that helps lactation. It turns out Himalaya, the herba-pharma company has a product by the same name with the same aim. (Incidentally, the Sanskrit word ‘shatavari’ means ‘She who possesses a hundred husbands’.)

    Kishni Borkya Hapse, who possessed one husband (who happened to be a vaidyaor ayurvedic physician), says villagers were not immediately won over to the profits of herbs. “They started asking for herbal concoctions only after witnessing our own cure by these,” she says. Hapse, who is Tulsa’s mother-in-law, was already familiar with the benefits of ayurveda through her husband, who taught her the formulas. “When you visit a doctor, his allopathic prescriptions usually cure one problem but give rise to another. That doesn’t happen with ayurveda,” she claims.

    Her neighbours took a long time to imbibe it. Fr D’Souza says it was initially difficult to wean villagers away from allopathy because its effects arrived fast while herbal cures sometimes took time. “They can’t afford to lose a day’s work, which is why they want a quick cure,” he says. If they didn’t have money to pay the allopath, they’d take credit from a neighbour. “It also turned into a matter of pride,” says Fr Brian D’Silva, “when the number of bottles of saline you were given indicated the gravity of your illness. It’s common knowledge that saline is indiscriminately used in healthcare here.”
    If the villagers have learnt well, and know what they’re doing with the herbs, they might just put the quacks out of business. Moreover they stand to restore to the village the ancient wisdom of well-being, and return to the soil old seeds of life.

GREEN COVER It is the job of health workers Tulsa Hapse (in red) and Kishni Borkya Hapse to nurture herbal gardens in Banubaiwadi (inset) the locally-prepared tooth powder, Nirgundi oil and hair oil

– joeanna rebello fernandes tnn

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