Irshad-ul-Nayeem took to begging when he lost a leg in an accident. Then he came to Dhaka's National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (NITOR), where India's Jaipur Foot people held a camp last month and in 24 hours left fitted with an artificial (prosthetic) leg. He returned two days later to get some adjustment done to the belt that strapped the limb to himself. The big difference was that he came pedalling his cycle-rickshaw! Now he will be back at his old trade and will not have to beg any more.
Or take the smart, 23-year-old Fawzia, who uses just one name. She lost both her legs in a bus accident three years ago. She has been using artificial limbs which cost her Taka 76,000 (Rs 63,000). But her new Jaipur ones, made of self-lubricating oil-filled nylon, are lighter, more fluid and stable even on irregular terrain. Comparable devices including a titanium replacement would cost $10,000 (Rs 6.2 lakh) or more. Her new legs came free.
A few days after the nearly month-long camp that fitted 617 accident victims whose limbs had to be amputated with artificial limbs, the historic visit of Narendra Modi took place. It marked the successful finalisation of the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh that has been hanging fire for decades and been a bilateral irritant. The visit received saturation media coverage in both countries. The Jaipur Foot camp received good media coverage in Bangladesh, but only a couple of paras here and there in the Indian media. It is difficult to judge which is more important in human terms - an incredibly better life for those too poor to afford modern prosthetic limbs or the end of all the travails of those entrapped in cut-off enclaves along the border.
NITOR was set up by an American medical missionary after the liberation war of 1971 that led to the birth of Bangladesh. Initially, it did well, but over time the skilled staff retired one by one, eventually rendering the artificial limb-making facility there non-functional. Then happened the Rana Plaza garments factory blaze in Dhaka a couple of years ago, in which over a thousand died and twice the number were injured.
An entrepreneur couple, Asif and Sadia Moyeen - she comes from the ruling family of a small principality in Haryana and did her schooling in Jaipur - decided to launch Jaipur Foot Bangladesh that, along with NITOR, sponsored the camp in Dhaka. Of all those fitted with artificial limbs, 150 were victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Among the others was Abdul Matin, in his 70s, who lost both his legs in 1971 during the liberation war.
The great thing about these limbs is that they are hardy and durable. You can work in the mud and slush of a paddy field and not damage them. You can even bend your knees and offer namaaz the traditional way!
The legendary Jaipur Foot was created by four people - foremost Pramod Karan Sethi, an orthopaedic surgeon, and Ram Chandra Sharma, a murtikar or image maker. They were helped by two other doctors - S C Kasliwal and Mahesh Udawat. But between 1968 and 1975, only around 50 of these limbs were fitted on to patients.
The Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS) was set up in 1975 by D R Mehta (he later became the chief of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, the capital market regulator), who had a few years ago met with a severe accident and almost lost a limb. It is under his leadership that the BMVSS acquired a vision and scalable administrative model that has by now helped 400,000 victims to be fitted with the Jaipur Foot limbs. Its clinics run in 26 countries, including war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq.
The BMVSS earns only 10 per cent of what it spends (last year $3.5 million), the government pays 30 per cent and private donations make up the remaining 60 per cent. It will not patent its technology and actively encourages groups to pick it up and do more of the good work.
The Dhaka camp organisers have two small complaints. The Bangladesh government did not waive the import duty on the materials procured for the camp. The Indian High Commission in Dhaka did precious little by way of helping out. But these pale into insignificance compared with two other problems. Nearly all the 15-member visiting team had no Bengali and the Bangladeshis virtually no spoken English. In this situation, Prakash Bhandari, the team leader who had spent some of his early years in Kharagpur in West Bengal, with his smattering of Bengali turned out to be an invaluable asset. A prominent media person in Jaipur, he decided to work pro bono for the BMVSS after his retirement as its media advisor.
Perhaps the toughest issue was culinary. The mostly shuddh shakahari (pure vegetarian) team members cooked their own dinner and the vegetarian lunch was sent across in turns by the families of the organisers. I got a taste of this when I was hard put to find good vegetarian snacks for Prakash, a former colleague and friend, to go with our drinks at my club. But one compensation was the beautiful evening breeze from the Dhakuria lakes that took away the summer heat and the other was the incomparable story of how over 600 mostly poor people got back their meaningful lives.