When Dr Ravindra Kolhe started nursing the poor tribals Melghat-- Maharashtra’s most malnourished area-- in 1989 the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR)there was 200 per 1,000 infants. Now, it has come down to 60, thanks to the medical awareness spread by Kolhe and his wife Smita, who have made tribal upliftment the motto of their life. An unassuming Kolhe, however, believes that he is only a catalyst not the game changer. He says that he will not accept any government aid for his work as he believes in self-reliance. Excerpts from a chat with Kiran Tare
Do the tribals come for medical treatment or they believe in tantrik?
I also had the same question when I reached there in 1989. You will be surprised to know that I have been getting patients from day one. If you explain to them the importance of medicines they understand it quickly.
Why is the area still known for malnourished children?
The government system is responsible for that. Under the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) every child is entitled to get 13g of edible oil every day. The government machinery supplies only one g of edible oil to each child.
The case with the supply of pulses is the same. In Melghat, the school children get khichadi of rice only. Pulses are almost non-existent in their food.
How has your work improved the situation?
I won’t say that the situation improved because of our work. Our work only drew the government’s attention to the pathetic situation. There are still many things to do. The government is interested only in constructing new buildings whereas there is a need to bring a sea change in its attitude.
Why don’t you form an NGO and seek financial assistance from donors?
People are anyway getting associated with our work. If I form an NGO, I fear, I would start working for only those projects which are entitled to get financial assistance. Or in other words, the government gives aid for certain projects only. We don’t want to restrict ourselves to certain things. We take up a work as per the need of the hour.
You also didn’t allow many people to join you. Why?
I didn’t want them to depend on me. I asked them to start their own work and grow it. I think a person gets disappointed and frustrated after a certain period of time if he works for others’ goal and not for his own. Their own work will keep them encouraged and motivated rather than working as per my instructions.
You had announced that you won’t accept any award but you have started departing from it. Did the need for money make you accept awards?
No. I am the first medical practitioner in my humble family. My father was a Railway employee. When I decided to work in Melghat after completing my studies, people used to taunt him. One day, a newspaper published news of an award that had come my way along with my photograph. My father called me up and said he was feeling proud of me. I am accepting the awards to make my father feel proud again and again.
Don’t you get threats from the Naxalites in the area?
Probably, the Naxalites believe that we are one of them. We are also working to change the system. They don’t have any issues with us.
What changes have you noticed in Bairagad over the years?
On a positive note, the tribals are becoming interested in education. They have named a hamlet as Kolupur as a tribute to our work. They can’t pronounce Kolhe so they changed my surname to Kolu. On a worrying note, our village of 500 households has 22 licensed guns. Don’t ask me about the number of umlicensed guns.