How a young Mumbai doctor transformed healthcare in a Bihar village

Dr Taru Jindal was sent to Bihar to train rural doctors in modern childbirth practices; she ended up transforming the community and herself.

As part of a project sponsored by the Bill Gates Foundation, a young gynaecologist gets posted at the Motihari district hospital, Patna, where her job is to train the doctors in improved techniques of caesarean-section and other essential childbirth skills. Eager to take on the task, she packs her bags and leaves for a journey that changes her life forever.

Dr Taru Jindal’s passionate memoir A Doctor’s Experiments in Bihar (Speaking Tiger, Rs 499) talks of the challenges, negligence and discrimination in the maternal healthcare arena in the remotest and least developed parts of the country.

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Dr Taru Jindal.

Written candidly with engaging personal anecdotes, the book presents a striking contrast between the workings of a government hospital in a backward state like Bihar and the professionalism and medical procedures followed in a multispecialty healthcare centre in a metropolis like Mumbai.

By taking its readers through remarkable descriptions, the book creates vivid scenes in your mind. For instance, on visiting Motihari government hospital for the first time, Taru writes, “I absent-mindedly looked out of the adjacent window. My eyes almost popped out as I saw piles of biomedical waste dumped just outside; it looked like a rotting gutter.”

She continues, “A woman was urinating right at the entrance of the labour room. I turned around in a reflex, but she continued, unbothered by my sudden appearance.” All through the book, the author’s style of writing is fluid, and she conveys personal feelings with utmost ease.

India is indeed one of the fastest emerging economies, with its healthcare sector recording ambitious growth year on year. Despite this, healthcare disparities, combined with social inequalities, take a significant position in discussions amongst health professionals and policymakers. The quality and accessibility of public healthcare provisions across rural areas are poor, unregulated, unorganised and barely monitored.

But how did the young, idealistic gynaecologist turn the tables in such difficult circumstances? As one reads further, one can sense Taru’s grit and optimism. Right from building her own team to working on the infrastructure to cater better to women, the strategies she outlines to improve the health care system are extremely cogent. And they work wonders.

As she notes, nurses learn to sterilise instruments and make it a practice, the labour room gets regularly cleaned, bulbs get repaired, and sweepers stop delivering babies (yes, they did so earlier). These small yet significant changes start taking place and she converts the dark into the light.

“In villages, it is so easy to create change, they just need a bit of assistance and support. It was in Bihar that I realised how much our rural areas need our time and support. It’s like a relay race; to win, all runners in the team have to run fast. For India to win, we cannot run ahead with just Mumbai and Delhi. Rural areas have to go along. And this can happen only if we, our generation, take responsibility for some of the problems that rural areas are grappling with – education, healthcare, women’s empowerment, financial deprivation. I believe even one year from all of us can make a big difference,” Taru later said in a TED talk in Bandra, Mumbai.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Taru had spent her humble beginnings within the boundaries of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) colony as her father was a BARC scientist.

She had first-hand experience in the limits of human pain and endurance when her grandmother got paralyzed and was bedridden. From changing her urinary catheter to dressing her bedsores to putting a feeding pipe in her nose to feed her, the young Taru learned the art of caregiving from her elder brother, an aspiring doctor at that time.

Those moments of witnessing her grandmother’s helplessness turned into moments of clarity. She realised she would make a good doctor herself. As the years passed, Taru, now 36, completed her MBBS and then MS in gynaecology from the prestigious Lokmanya Tilak Medical College and Sion Hospital, Mumbai.

The Bill Gates Foundation project took her further away from home than she had ever lived. Gradually, Bihar becomes Taru’s second home. Once the assignment at Motihari District Hospital finished, she then started a health centre in a remote village called Masarhi.

About 25 km away from the city, the villagers there suffered from hunger and malnutrition. Taru decided to transform their health by understanding the lives of its people. Slowly, she penetrated deep into the skin of their problems and tried to find solutions that promoted health like increasing local food diversity and improving the availability of fruits and vegetables.

Giving a striking example of freedom activist and social reformer Vinoba Bhave’s ‘bhoodan andolan’, she decided to walk on his path and started community farming. Indeed, her approach to every challenge she encounters is methodical and expansive. Along with her persistence and her compassionate attitude towards the people of Masarhi, in no time, she became an integral part of their life.

As rightly quoted in her book, magic happens when you don’t give up. The universe conspired in her favour and she was selected ‘Youth Leader from India’ by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action for her work on breastfeeding and malnutrition.

Thirty-two delegates from across the world, including Taru, shared the most coveted stage in Malaysia. When they asked her, “Where are you from?” she beamed at the thought of her new identity and proudly said, “I am from Bihar.”

Unfortunately, Taru was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had to give up her work in Bihar and return to Mumbai for treatment. More than anything, this well-written and insightful book is about the fighting spirit of a woman who has a resolve and is not ready to give up. In November 2019, Taru was awarded the Karmaveer Chakra Award by the International Confederation of NGO (iCONGO) in partnership with the United Nations.

First published in eShe magazine Moneycontrol Ready Reckoner start

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