IT was a trek in the rarefied heights of Kumaon 12 years ago that changed Milan Nags life. The spirit of adventure had been there for years and it had even led the college-going Nag and a few of his friends to open a bank account and use the savings to finance their climbs and treks in the mountains. But that particular journey to Jatuli village, where the roadhead ends and the mountains begin, turned out to be different. The young trekker and his friends found themselves trying to save an eight-month-old baby boy from a ravaging fungal infection using pills and cream from their limited medicine kit. The boy recovered, but the experience was a revelation for Nag and his friends. "We realised that in these far-flung mountain villages, the hill people were badly neglected," says Nag. "Medical help is so remote."
For the next four years, between treks and a nine-to-five job as a draughtsman with a leading Calcutta-based consultancy firm and a near-fatal brush with hepatitis, Nag and his friends pondered about combining adventure with social service. Various mountaineering clubs vetoed their idea saying it was unrealistic to combine serious climbing with social welfare activities. But Nag and his friends thought otherwise: they formed the Himalayan Medical Camp, a voluntary organisation of nature lovers and doctors, in 92. That year they kicked off with a trek to Chamoli in the Garhwal Himalayas with a 15-member team of climbers and post-graduate medical students, donated medicines and some equipment. By all accounts, it was a stunning success: some 1,000 patients from 13 villages trooped into their makeshift camps for free treatment.
Seven years on, this fledgling, low-profile group of climber-activists has trekked in the clouds of the Himalayas on four occasions, treating some 3,000 villagers and carrying out over a hundred eye operations. All free of cost, of course. For their sterling work, the group has earned the praise of such legendary climbers as Edmund Hillary and Chris Bonnington. "Why only trek and enjoy nature?" asks the soft-spoken Nag. "Let us try to give back something to the people in the process as well."
Indian hill people usually suffer from gastric ulcers, skin diseases and severe eye problems. With the closest health centres usually some 8 to 10 km away, timely medication is almost an impossibility. Sure enough, Nags trekking group usually comprising of a dozen or more climbers, doctors and porters lugging around 1,200 kg of equipment and medicines provided by Calcuttas Gujarati Relief Society is a hit with Himalayan villagers: "We are welcomed profusely wherever we go now." No wonder, considering the relief they are providing to people in these neglected areas. In Leh, where there was not a single eye surgeon for four years until the group arrived there in 92, even the local politicians children and a government paediatricians daughter were treated for eye problems at the groups mobile adventure medical camp.
But now their biggest challenge beckons the group. Next March, Nag plans to take a 36-member group, including 12 ace climbers, to the mother of all expeditions: a Mount Everest summit from the south side. A stretched 15-day trek from Lukla in Nepal to the base camp will be used to treat patients, conduct hepatitis tests and run A I D S a w a reness campaigns. A whopping Rs 2 cro re will be needed to fund the expedition. At home, the West Bengal government takes little interest in such activities: the bankrupt state government refuses to cough up even token grants of a few thousand rupees to this apolitical group. But if you want to lend a helping hand and enable Nags team to climb the Everest and treat thousands of poor hill people, write to him at 22/3 Nakuleswar Tola Lane, Kalighat, Calcutta 26, or call him at (33) 4668752.