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India: A ‘Real Award’ for the Real Hero 5 Apr 2013

Dr. Ashish Satav was one of the honorees from India of the Real Awards – an award that acknowledges health workers contribution towards saving lives. The REAL Awards, created by Save the Children in partnership with the Frontline Health Workers Coalition, is a first-of-its-kind global awards program to recognise, respect and appreciate the work of health workers and the lifesaving care they provide.  Save the Children India’s Pragya Vats spoke to Dr. Satav about his life’s work.

How it all started for the doctor extraordinaire

"I was influenced by my grandfather Mr. Vasantrao Bombatkar (Sarvodaya leader) since my childhood- he devoted his life to the freedom movement. Under his guidance, I read literature written by Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekanand and great saint Vinoba Bhave. When I was 13 years old I was touched by Gandhian teaching, “youths should go to the villages to serve as real India is in villages” and after 7th standard, I decided to become a doctor and serve the rural part of India."

“During my medical studies, I started visiting various rural and tribal health projects. After visiting tribal areas, I realized that these areas need medical facilities to a much greater extent than compared to rural areas.”

In 1997, Dr. Ashish decided to start work in a very difficult area of Melghat where medical facilities were very scarce, one of Maharashtra's most backward tribal areas, the under 5 mortality rates in that region were stunning: more than 100 deaths per 1,000 live births - almost twice the national Indian average of 60 per 1,000.

There were no hospital facilities for 100 km and infant malnutrition was rampant - 10 times beyond the official government statistics.

Leading the way amidst challenges

Dr. Satav examining a severely malnourished child

Instead of joining a lucrative big-city practice, Ashish knew he could have more of an impact by working in the poorest and most deprived parts of India.  He landed in beautiful, but poor, Melghat.

Over the last 15 years Dr. Ashish and his wife Dr. Kavita, through sheer determination and ingenuity, have managed to reduce the under 5 mortality rates to around 60 per 1,000. Severe malnutrition cases have dropped by over 50%.

But the task wasn’t easy. One of the formidable challenges was the lack of awareness among the people. “When I started majority” he said, “say 90 percent of the people were going to traditional faith healers, the health practices were rooted in their local values and culture.”

Ashish recounts an early experience. A poor tribal woman of around 30 came to him carrying a very sick infant. The child was severely malnourished with pneumonia and needed to be hospitalized. However, the mother -recently widowed and with no one else to look after her other children at home - refused to admit the child.

"The child will die," Ashish warned her.

"I don’t have money," she replied. "I have four other children and a chicken and a goat to look after and feed.”

Ashish was shocked, but realized that she had no other option. The mother and child departed, and the child died. But the incident moved Ashish to work on child nutrition issues with a sense of urgency.

As a mark of his undiluted commitment to Melghat he could mobilise the Kasturba Health Society, Sevagram to start the first and only maternal and child care hospital in the area beginning of 2012.

Empowering community, changing lives

Despite challenges, Dr. Ashish continued his mission – to change the situation for the better.

He trained tribal women to serve as village health workers, orarogya doot, educating and supporting the families with nutrition and hygiene education, primary medical care, and nursing support.

In the absence of medical facilities he trained the local health workers in newborn home based care.

Ashish also encouraged the villagers to start kitchen gardens. He channeled government and community aid to village soup kitchens, and got city experts to teach village women tasty recipes with local vegetables and cereals. These have brought down malnutrition and mortality significantly and earned Dr. Ashish recognition and awards.

Dr. Kavita Satav 

He shared one of the most moving experiences when his wife Kavita did a complicated delivery and saved the child, they found that the mother could not produce any breast-milk to feed the child.

A nursing mother herself, Dr. Kavita sent half her own milk to feed the baby -now a healthy boy. As a result, the couple created a program encouraging lactating mothers to donate part of their milk to help save other babies.

The ‘real hero’

From working with community to advocating with government including public interest litigation for change, Dr. Ashish does it all.

In 2004, his own research across several villages revealed a massive mismatch between his data and that of the government which was an absolute under estimation of reality. This turned the local political big wigs against him and he faced threats on his life. Even this did not deter the doctor, and in 2005, malnutrition among tribal communities emerged high on the political agenda at the state level.

As Dr. Ashish puts it, “Gandhiji always said – truth always prevails and it did.”

While there is a startling contrast between the India that we experience in our cities versus ‘Bharat’ that is far removed from even the most basic of amenities it is also heartening and inspiring to see people like Dr. Ashish and Dr. Kavita chipping away with great commitment to address and solve these problems. The least we can do is to celebrate the valuable contribution they are making.

Know morehttp://www.therealawards.com/celebrate/46