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Modesty exemplified

Dr Bharat Vaswani, who has won the Magsaysay Award for taking 7,000 mentally ill off the streets and reuniting them with their families, hopes society learns that psychiatry has the ability to put sufferers back on their feet

One of the recipients of this year’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award is Mumbai based psychiatrist Dr Bharat Vatwani. He tells Patriot, despite his recognition, that he doesn’t believe he has done much for the thousands of mentally ill wandering the streets of India.

The Magsaysay Foundation’s board of trustees beg to differ, identifying him for his “tremendous courage and healing compassion in embracing India’s mentally-afflicted destitute”, going on to call his dedication to the work as “steadfast and magnanimous”, “restoring and affirming the human dignity of even the most ostracized”.

The Shraddha Foundation founded in 1989 by him and his wife Dr Smitha Vatwani, a fellow psychiatrist, has till now helped 7,000 people. Putting things into perspective, he talks about an article “presented by some fellow psychiatrists in 2016”, which had claimed that the number of wandering mentally ill on the roads of India were four lakh. “I personally feel it must be more”, this is perhaps why, he then says, “All these years I have believed that Shraddha has done nothing. A mere 7,000 reunited; 3,93,000 still left wandering.”

Modestly he adds, “How Ramon Magsaysay Foundation thought that I (or Shraddha) deserved this Award is a colossal mystery to me. But if they have thought that I deserve it, so be it.” He does hope that this recognition would do some good to the cause of mental illness in India.

He may not want accolades, but his work has helped the mentally ill on the streets of Mumbai and Karjat, in Maharashtra. And as many mental health workers will say, the persons they encounter on the streets don’t always hail from the state they are found in. Shraddha have helped reunite individuals from Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and Bihar, to name a few.

Take Revallamma’s example. The Foundation picked her up from Mumbai’s streets, as she displayed classic symptoms of mental illness. They nursed her and gave her psychiatric care and treatment for six weeks. She improved radically and then revealed to doctors the name of her native village, which was about 200 km from Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. She was taken back home and reunited with her mother after four long years of separation.

Here, Dr Vaswani answers Patriot’s questions on what led him to psychiatry, the incident that pushed him and his wife to open the Foundation, and his legacy.

What made you want to be a psychiatrist?

After finishing MBBS, I started GP (General Practice) at Vasai, thinking I would help the rural population. My practice flopped. My father had expired when I was 12. I was heart-broken when my practice flopped. I needed money.

I did a non-medical job. One of my seniors in Grant Medical College (my alma mat‎er) suggested Psychiatry. I told him to expose me to the psychiatric ward and he did. I empathised instantly with what I saw, perhaps because of the hardships I had gone through. And took up psychiatry. I got my Diploma in Psychiatry Medicine from GMC and did my MD from Gokuldas Seth Medical College. But I regard GMC as my alma mater.

What was your first job?

I started practice in 1987. Set up a small five-bed psychiatric nursing home in ‎1988 in Borivli, Mumbai with my wife Dr Smitha Vatwani, also a psychiatrist.

What led you to start the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation after just a couple of years in the field?

One day, while sitting in a restaurant, we noticed a young boy who was horribly skinny, dirty, dishevelled and in really bad shape. We realised that he was a schizophrenic and while we were watching, he picked up an empty coconut shell next to him, dipped it into the nullah (drain) flowing nearby and drank the gutter water in a single shot. That was the turning point of our lives. Spontaneously we crossed the road, assisted him to come with us (which given his weak state was very easy for us) and brought him to our nursing home.

We nursed him, treated him with appropriate psychiatric medicines and gradually he improved. He turned out to be a BSc graduate whose father was the Superintendent of a Zilla Parishad in Andhra Pradesh. Mental illness can affect the best of the best and reduce a person to pathetically inhuman conditions. And suddenly we realised that there was no organisation dealing with such people.

It has been 27 years since then. Sad to say that innumerable psychiatrists and NGOs have come into existence after that but we continue to be the only NGO in the whole of India treating/rehabilitating male mentally ill roadside destitutes. Thankfully, a couple of NGOs have sprung up over the years to deal with female mentally ill roadside destitutes.

Does mental illness make the homeless more susceptible to danger? What can the government do?

Yes, it does. A homeless guy may go to a government hospital if he develops fever, cough or any physical symptom. He may beg and get his daily meal. A mentally ill guy is exposed to the inconsistencies of nature and does not have any sensibilities to fend for himself. He may develop tuberculosis, anaemia and be able to do nothing. There are innumerable instances when he is carrying adequate money on his person, but is nullified by the absence of mental faculties to use that money to reach home.
As regards the government, the question is not what they can do. Their hands are full with other issues involving a statistically higher number of lives: unemployment, illiteracy, poverty.

Do you plan on expanding your reach?

The ‎destitute that we pick up may hail from any part of India. So, the reunion process affects the lives of the villages exposed to these reunions. Awareness about mental health is created. As a fellow psychiatrist put it, it is not passive transmission of knowledge, it is the loud resonance of a tiger’s roar about the treatability of mental illness in that village. So ultimately it is not 7,000 reunions that Shraddha has done. It is 7,000 villages sensitised to the treatability of mental illness.
Even when mental illness relapses upon discontinuation of medicines, the village realises that the key is the medication. This is a win for science over black magic faith and other myths.

With the severe dearth of psychiatrists in India, what is the solution?

Shraddha has no intention of setting up more branches or expanding. As far as the cause of the wandering mentally ill roadside destitute goes, other NGO’s, students, social workers, and likeminded individuals replicating the Shraddha model, albeit on a smaller scale and with sharing of knowledge and expertise from the Shraddha team is the hope of the hour. Someone else has to pick up the baton. No idea whether that shall happen, but hope springs eternal…

Along with recognising your contribution, do you think this award can raise awareness about mental health?

I hope it does. I am 60 years old. Our NGO Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation is already running above capacity and we can’t ‎stretch this into infinity. What is required is for other NGOS, social workers, students, well-meaning souls of society to take up the cause of the wandering mentally ill roadside destitute.

Awareness of the cause will result in increased awareness of mental illness. I pray that the awareness increases in society because of the Award. To some degree, it will.

What would you want your legacy to be?

In my will, which I have already made, I have hoped that I be buried in the Karjat Center of Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation and on my tombstone, be written the Epitaph ‘ The pain of the common man took me forward, may it lead you too…’ If you can call that a legacy, that’s it.