The Druids Of A Lost Tribe

The Georges, Sittlingi
The Druids Of A Lost Tribe
The Druids Of A Lost Tribe
"Are you missionaries or Naxalites?" Dr Regi M. George was asked, when he approached the Scheduled Tribes Commission in Tamil Nadu for statistics on adivasis. George and his wife, Lalitha Regi, were neither. They were doctors from Kerala, a decade into their careers, looking for a place forsaken by the healthcare system. A 70-km bone-rattling drive into Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri district brings you to what they found: Sittlingi. In this impoverished cluster of 21 adivasi villages, with a population of 10,000, they set up home and hospital 13 years ago, with little money and much family opposition. Why Sittlingi? The infant mortality rate (IMR) was 154 per 1,000 (15 in 100 children died before turning one), 75 per cent of newborns recorded low birth weight (LBW), diarrhoea was common. Dubious 'motorcycle doctors' peddled injections and medicines for hefty profits. The nearest hospital was in Harur, 45 km away.

And the place was beautiful. Getting land was a struggle—bribe-seeking local authorities insisted non-tribals couldn't buy any. "So we just encroached and occupied an acre of tribal land that an adivasi was willing to sell, against the rules," says George coolly. ActionAid pitched in with Rs 10,000. Thus was an outpatient department born, in a mud-thatched hut. A full-fledged hospital with inpatient facility was constructed in 1997.

Initially, says Lalitha, adivasis stayed away, sceptical of doctors who were erecting masonry and digging wells. The breakthrough came after she rode a cycle to a remote hamlet and saved the life of a diarrhoea patient. Today, not just adivasis, but non-tribals too flock to their Tribal Health Initiative, drawn by low costs and ethical practices. OPD registration costs tribals Rs 15, non-tribals Rs 25. Repeat visits are free. Patient records are computerised. Says George: "We don't compromise on rigour and quality of care just because we work in a remote area."

At first, adivasi elders resented their girls being trained as health workers, but in 2004, there were 200 applications for six vacancies. The IMR has more than halved, to 68. No mother has died during childbirth in Sittlingi in the last three years.

Life is full, for George, 47, and Lalitha, 46, with work, and two children, but there are things they miss, and it's not just the Kottayam fish curry. Says George, "We work with the adivasis, but we don't share a common language of literature or music." What they miss most, however, is peer support. Engineer S. Ravichander, who shares their passions, administers the hospital. An architect couple educates adivasi children. Young doctors come and go, but none have opted to join them in 13 years.

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