"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.