Like in several villages of India, in the rural areas around Nagpur city and in Nagpur, Bhandara and Gondia districts of Maharashtra, Rotarians of Rotary Club of Nagpur Fort, RID 3030, came across a startling feature pertaining to handicapped children. They found there were hundreds of handicapped children, many of them confined to their homes and a burden to the family, because they could not or refused to attend school due to their deformities. Thus was born a signature project of the club titled Project Saksham.
Recalling its genesis, past president of the club Anil Ambatkar, a retired group captain from the Indian Air Force who has been a Rotarian and member of this club for the last 8 years, says that in 2018, when senior members of the club were searching for a project “that required out-of-the-box thinking, we stumbled upon the unfulfilled needs of disabled children from economically backward families who are forced to lead their lives burdened with a perpetual disability.” The club started exploring ways and means to enhance the capabilities of these children and to empower them to live as independent citizens.
These children had become a “burden” to their families because they had deformities, mainly due to birth defect caused by low levels of nutrition or other reasons, and found it unbearable to attend school because of their disability. “There are several children with a twisted arm or leg and other deformities, which attracts undue attention and cruel taunts from other able-bodied children. As a result of teasing at the school, such children often refuse to attend school. As they hail from very poor families, the parents being illiterate, are sometimes not even aware that correctional surgery can be done for such children,” he adds. Even if they are aware, they simply lack the financial resources to get medical intervention.
Club secretary Shashikant Khandekar adds that two years ago, as they were brainstorming on what project to take up, something that would really make a difference to the lives of people, they found that one of their own club members, Dr Viraj Shingade, an orthopaedic surgeon, was running his own NGO, the Nagai Narayanji Memorial Foundation (NNMF).
He had been regularly organising screening camps in remote rural areas to identify children with disabilities. “From him we learnt several heartrending stories about the plight of disabled children and decided to help them,” says Ambatkar.
The members found that these camps had detected several children with deformed limbs, crooked arms, twisted legs, club feet and the like, and left untreated, many of the children with lower limb deficiencies were no longer able to walk, and actually were crawling to move within their homes or villages.
Giving the example of 10-year-old Akshay, hailing from a village in eastern Vidarbha, who was suffering from a club foot, he said that the child’s parents were “facing innumerable unwanted questions and suggestions, because Akshay could not walk properly, had frequent falls and was unable to manage even day-to-day activities. He had developed ugly scars over his feet. Constant humiliation and isolation by his peers had made his life miserable and hampered his normal growth. As they lived in a place which has very poor access to medical facilities, the family thought treatment was out of the question for their child.” He added that due to either being illiterate or believing in superstition, the parents often accept their child’s “fate as a curse”.
Another child the club members found and helped is 12-year-old Aarohi (name changed) who suffered from cerebral palsy. She too belonged to a poor family; born as a premature baby with a low birth weight and failure to cry at birth, “due to lack of medical treatment and proper guidance, she was headed for major developmental issues. Aarohi was an enthusiastic young girl but her physical limitations were making things difficult for her as well as her family,” said Ambatkar.
Another problem with such childhood disabilities, the club members found, is that if they are not noticed early, there is no intervention and they remain untreated in early years, the severity and complication of the disability gets multiplied. The club found out that there were 1,300 such kids who had been screened by NNMF and were waiting for corrective surgeries.
Dr Viraj, a Rotarian of the club, who runs his own hospital, was ready to conduct the surgeries free of cost, “but the problem was about the cost of investigation, operation theatre expenses, medicines, implants, etc. So RC Nagpur Fort carved out Project Saksham to fill the gap and arrange corrective orthopaedic surgeries for disabled children like Askhay and Arohi,” says Khandekar.
While club members donated generously to fulfill the club’s dream project, corporates and other kind-hearted people also donated and the club managed to collect an amount of ₹9.48 lakh. “With this project receiving a morale-boosting encouragement from District 3030, we organised the first surgery on a child in Oct 2019, and the 64th one on Feb 3, 2020. Disabilities for which surgeries were performed include cerebral palsy, club foot, burn contractures, radiolunar synostosis etc,” says Ambatkar.
Explaining the way in which this corrective surgery and rehabilitation programme is organised, he said the parents and children have to be brought to the city several times. For example, for a twisted hand or leg, the limb has to be first corrected using a splint, plaster etc. Then there are several physiotherapy sessions once the surgery is done. Often this process takes up to two months. “Dr Vijay does the procedure free of cost and the club pays for the hospitalisation, material used, etc. Post surgery, the children are provided rehabilitation services and orthotic appliances free of cost.”
Along with 62 other children, both Askhay and Arohi have been helped with correctional surgery and are now going back to school. “We will do follow up action to ensure that all these children lead a dignified life,” he says.
But the club members are not hanging up their boots on this project; at least not yet. Their major concern is that there is a long waiting list of more such disabled children, about 1,200 of them. The project has slowed down and come to a halt thanks to the Covid pandemic. Both the club members and the corporates who have helped in the past or can give some funds in the future have been impacted by this pandemic. “But we are not going to give up. We will keep trying to raise funds, knowing fully well that there are so many children out there who can be helped to lead a dignified and fruitful life with our help,” adds Ambatkar.