NEW DELHI — Traveling through India in the 1990s, doctors Regi George and Lalitha Regi came across the neglected tribal region of Sittilingi valley and Kalrayan and Sitteri Hills in Tamil Nadu, India. Tribal Indians, constituting 8.6 percent the country’s population, are a marginalized group in India. Deeply troubled by a lack of healthcare, anesthesiologist George and gynecologist Regi committed themselves to saving the lives of these forgotten people. With a vision of empowering them with healthcare and improving their quality of lives, the couple launched the Tribal Health Initiative (THI) in 1992.
With one in five children dying before their first birthday and many mothers losing their lives during childbirth, the direness of the situation was palpable and yet largely ignored. George and Regi used their own savings to set up the first outpatient clinic in a thatched hut. THI believes that physical health is only one aspect of wellbeing and that mental and social health are critical for the overall welfare of a community. What started as a healthcare initiative 25 years ago has progressed to include development programs for self-sustenance of these underrepresented tribes.
In 1997, Tribal Health Initiative built an elementary 10-bed hospital with a labor room and an operating room lit by a 100-watt bulb and equipped with an EMO Ether Inhaler & Vaporiser. Since then the hospital has evolved into a 30-bed facility and consists of a labor room with an attached ICU neonatal unit, an ICU unit with ventilator beds and an operating room outfitted with state of the art equipment. The facility has recently been upgraded to perform endoscopies and is equipped with defibrillators and diagnostic tools including an ultrasound scan machine with Doppler technology.
The hospital is managed by six doctors including a surgeon, an anesthesiologist and a gynecologist. THI’s health workers are tribal girls trained to perform critical tasks including diagnosis and treatment of minor ailments, assisting during procedures and antenatal and infant care. The hospital also houses a separate building with an outpatient facility, a dental office, an x-ray room and a laboratory facility equipped to conduct tuberculosis and HIV testing in addition to blood analysis. This eco-friendly hospital fueled by solar power and water pumps caters to 33 villages with ambulance service in 21 villages, admitting about 1000 patients and conducting approximately 250 deliveries annually.
Tribal Health Initiative is supported by 55 medical professionals with an outreach program in 33 villages. Monthly mobile clinics are sustained by health auxiliaries nominated by each village and THI’s health workers. The mobile clinics’ conduct post and pre-surgical exams and routine checkups including hypertension screening. They have been critical in lowering infant and maternal mortality while alleviating the time and cost burden associated with healthcare. Infant mortality has decreased from 147 per 1000 to 20 per 1000 and women’s participation in antenatal exams has increased from 11 to 90 percent since the initiation of the outreach programs.
THI recognizes the importance of prevention in maintaining health. Its health workers regularly visit village schools to illustrate the significance of hygiene, cleanliness and nutrition. Students are also provided a fundamental understanding of diseases and special seminars are held on adolescent health.
Tribal Health Initiative understands that development to support livelihood and nutrition is critical to safeguarding individual and community health.
Tribal Farming Initiative
Tribal farmers who originally enjoyed ample rain-fed sustenance were struggling under the demands of the modern consumer economy. Forced to cultivate water exhaustive cash crops, they had to rely on financially draining chemical fertilizers and pesticides. To relieve these pressures, THI helped farmers incorporate organic farming techniques that increased their yields of healthier food while conserving natural resources. Approximately 200 farmers practicing organic farming, half of whom are certified make up the Sittilingi Organic Farmers Association and the Sittilingi Valley Agricultural Development (SVAD) brand of organic products is currently being sold in multiple cities in South India. Through Seed Banks, THI also enabled farmers to preserve almost extinct seeds such as millet.
Tribal Crafts Initiative
THI’s craft initiative, allows tribal women to preserve their cultural heritage while financially supporting themselves and boosting the local economy. The Lambadi Tribe has a tradition of intricate embroidery, now being learned by the younger women to create a unique collection of clothes and accessories. Their work called “Porgai” translates to pride in the Lambadi dialect and is currently supported by 60 artisans under the ‘Porgai Artisans Association’ umbrella. THI also helped initiate a women’s self-help group that supports more 200 pioneering entrepreneurs manufacture and sell products such as millet biscuits and natural soaps. It fosters fair prices, provides marketing opportunities and enables the budding entrepreneurs to qualify for loans.
The Tribal Health Initiative also supports passionate philanthropists and has served as an incubator for independently operated technology and education initiatives committed to improving the lives of tribal communities in the region.
THI has made strides in holistically elevating the hill tribes, ‘malevasis’ with support, trust and compassion and strives to continue improving the quality of life of this underserved population by empowering them to be self-sufficient while restoring their lost sense of self-worth and pride.
– Preeti Yadav