JAIPUR, India — Tucked away in a small corner of arid, northwestern India lies the medieval city of Jaipur: an oasis town located at the edge of one of India’s hottest regions, the Thar Desert.
Not far from the walls of the old city, a dusty, tall white building rises above a simple mud-packed courtyard flanked by exotic trees. Inside, plaster dust, sparks, and flakes of high-strength polymers whiz through the air to the rhythmic clanging of machine drills and industrial mixing vats.
Workers who operate in a flourish of white lab coats slice through the thick heat around them to sculpt, fit, and shave sheets of plastic and plaster of Paris into human limbs that literally help amputees get back on their feet.
In a developing nation where economic opportunity is limited below the looming class divide, medical treatments are wildly expensive. People living with disabilities are often stigmatized. Deependra Raj Mehta leads a group of intrepid men and women working to change that.
These social shakers, many of whom are fitted with Jaipur Foot prosthetics themselves, make up the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, or Jaipur Foot for short. Using rudimentary, homemade tools to get the job done, Jaipur Foot, which has been in operation for 43 years, provides prosthetic limbs, calipers, and other mobility devices to millions of individuals around the world, giving them back their ability to walk, squat, sit, run, climb, bike, and swim. And it’s all free.
“It is a healthcare model based upon compassion where the critical factor is the deed, not the payment,” said Mehta, adding that the joy he receives from his work has a value and worth that is “unlimited and priceless.”
Before founding Jaipur Foot, Mehta was a chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (his country’s equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission). In 1975, he was seriously injured in a traffic accident. During his recovery, Mehta’s physicians told him that the heavy injuries sustained by his legs might have required an amputation.
Mehta was fortunate to recover, and after leaving the hospital, discussed his experiences with colleagues. Together they pondered the plight of amputees who could not afford to receive prosthetic devices and wished to help them. And so, the visionary concept was born.
On a typical day, patients like 8-year-old Asuza sit and wait for fittings beneath a large, black plaque of a generous donor.
A technician who is making Asuza’s limb, gets the proper-sized foot, plastic sheets, shoes, and strap, from the storage room for a child of her age. The new prosthetic foot will allow her to begin a new walk of life.
Jaipur Foot, which works in partnership with the United Nations, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Indian Space Research Organization, and other world-renowned NGOs, operates on a modest annual budget of $4 million.
Even as Jaipur Foot workers endure an outwardly intense veil of pain and hardship, there is solidarity within the Indian amputee community. Jaipur Foot’s administrators do not receive salaries. Where the temperature over the rocky hills and sandy plateaus routinely soars above 100 degrees, there is no air conditioning, and directors bring their own water to save costs. Mehta even apologizes for not offering tea to the guests of his institution.
With these cost-saving mechanisms, Jaipur Foot gives the gift of mobility to patients, 90 percent of whom live beneath the poverty line. The organization has transformed the lives of over 1.5 million people worldwide, helping them to reshape their both lives mentally and physically.
Driven by his believe that a friend is one who helps, Mehta asks, “Since all beings are one’s friend, if a being is in need and you do not aid them, then what kind of friend are you?”
Although Mehta has often been urged by his financial supporters to charge a minimal amount to his patients, he wholeheartedly refuses, stating that that would be against the institution’s values. He contends this model must make its way into other realms of medical management.
When a woman from the state of Bihar met with an accident that took her limb, her husband left her and went to the city of Pune. Jaipur Foot gave her not only a below-knee prosthetic, but also renewed hope for a better life. She’s now studying to attain an MBA, and is hopeful about securing a better life for her young daughter.
Providing new limbs is not the only form of assistance the institution provides to its patients. Jaipur Foot regularly gives tea sets, sewing machines, and other items to its patients which help them to support their families and be self-sufficient, producing members of their communities. Patients can also get free hand-powered tricycles, which can help them get around if they do not feel comfortable on bikes.
A lady from Punjab lost her leg due to infection when she fell from a second story while cleaning a window. When her husband left her after this accident because of the stigma, Jaipur Foot helped her get back on her feet through its social initiatives. Now, she works with the government of Punjab to empower women, especially those who are disabled, through crafts.
When patients first arrive at the Jaipur Foot organization, they often struggle to reach the front door, said Mehta. When they leave, they have been profoundly changed: rejuvenated and uplifted with a newfound sense of pride and dignity.
“Sorrow can turn into a smile,” said Mehta.
ABOUT THE WRITER
iGeneration Youth photojournalist Akshay Amesur, 16, is a student at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, P.A. Through his school’s Parkin Fellowship Program, an endowment which funds selected student’s international environmental or service projects, Akshay volunteered at the headquarters of Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, or Jaipur Foot.