Patriotism and Mobile Medical Vans

“Well you are a patriotic Indian, right? Write good things about our work then!” said half-jokingly by one of my colleagues from a local NGO that has been instrumental in my fieldwork in Hyderabad. Does feeling a sense of belonging to a particular nation automatically make you patriotic? More importantly, does patriotism entail only seeing and accepting one’s country in the positive in every situation, no matter how grey the reality may be? I replied, perhaps not as articulately as I could in hindsight, that being patriotic means trying to constantly improve one’s country for the better: not ignoring flaws in systems but rather questioning them since that is the only way to find creative solutions to solve rather than circumvent problems that plague the country.

The discussion that ensued got me thinking about the larger work that us graduate students/academics do. We do (For the most part) tend to focus on societal problems/issues from different disciplinary perspectives in order to vaguely describe some viable points for action in the Conclusion section of papers. Do all we (academics) really care about is publishing in a top-tier journal, with minimal regard for implications of our research? Especially when it comes to the graduate student job market checklist? I have heard many responses to this ranging from the purity of academic pursuit, to “well, it’s the job of “policy-makers” to actually implement any of our recommendations”. Yet, I have interacted with enough examples of headstrong individuals that straddle both worlds with alacrity without compromising on either to know that this is possible. I have a good feeling based on conversations with colleagues that more graduate students and young professors will choose this path- something we all can look forward to.

Luckily for me, I am not faced with an alarming choice about what I choose to write when it comes to the work of the NGO in question. The people of HelpAge Hyderabad are doing a phenomenal job serving an oft ignored population 7 days a week, with an eagerness that is inspiring. HelpAge International is a global network of organizations from the UK, India, Kenya, Canada, and Colombia that came together to improve the lives of their elderly in 1983. Their mission is “to help older people claim their rights, challenge discrimination and overcome poverty in order to help them lead dignified, secure, active and healthy lives”. Their work in India is expansive: Each state has its own parent office, with roots in urban, slum, and rural areas under their jurisdiction. Interestingly, their work in India has been moving from elder welfare toward development. Particularly so in terms of advocacy for the rights of elderly, for which HelpAge works closely with the Government and Senior Citizens Associations across states to bring about changes at the policy level.

I was privileged to get a chance to observe their work closely for the last week and half around the greater Hyderabad area. Every day, there are about four teams of HelpAge workers that spread out across the city in mobile medical vans. Each day they park their vehicle in a predetermined village/slum/urban center where they take blood pressure readings, prescribe and provide free medications, and wear many hats as counselors or a helping hand. I accompanied them on these daily visits, where I was able to interact with and interview women as part of my study. The sweltering heat did little to deter men and women from visiting this van, and while there wasn’t always tree shade to conduct interviews under, we made it work from the car we traveled in. Most of the women I spoke with reported health problems we are beginning to associate with developing countries (including rural areas) that have long been issues in the West: diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Most of the funding for HelpAge Hyderabad is from Corporate Social Responsibility campaigns- a happy detail for all you CSR cynics out there! Each team in the mobile medical van comprises a driver, doctor, pharmacist, and a counselor (usually someone with a Master’s in Social Work degree). That’s not to say that each role is mutually exclusive; there are plenty of overlaps that are only natural in such a small group.

Each day, there is already a line of about 10-15 elderly men and women that travel to meet their doctor and stock up on medicines they need. They largely mill around talking to one another, and the HelpAge folks- who know their health, finances, and family issues intimately. While most women I interviewed before HelpAge came around, took a while to warm up to me and my RA and the personal, probing questions we had, these women were happy, almost eager to talk, even about sensitive issues. I kept reiterating that none of their personal or geographic information would be shared with anyone, including those they know at HelpAge, but the women couldn’t care about my IRB-dictated guidelines. They wanted to talk for hours- share their stories, and even learn about mine. In the course of these conversations, I was a bystander in their transformation back into a blushing bride (most of them met their husbands on their wedding day, now a clichéd line) when recounting their early life, and crash to reality when recounting heart-breaking events in their journey and wiping tears from their sari pallu. While I wasn’t fully prepared to face this emotional see-saw with them, I have to thank HelpAge, CASI, and the Population Aging Research Center at Penn for allowing me to get to know the people whose stories will (hopefully) come alive in my dissertation.

I leave you with a short article from today’s Hindustan Times newspaper that numerically slaps you with the facts about India’s population projection, largely driven by aging:

Until next week!

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About apoorvajadhav

Fourth-year Ph.D. Candidate in Demography at the Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. I study social norms and fertility decline, as well as intergenerational transfers and aging in India