In 1998, when Dr. Ashish Satav and his wife Dr. Kavita arrived in Melghat, one of Maharashtra's most backward tribal areas, the infant mortality rates in that region were stunning: more than 100 deaths per 1,000 live births – almost twice the Indian average of 52 per 1,000.
There were no hospital facilities anywhere close, and infant malnutrition was rampant – 10 times beyond the official government statistics.
Today, Ashish and Kavita, through sheer determination and ingenuity, have managed to reduce the mortality rates to around 60 per 1,000. Severe malnutrition cases have dropped by over 40%.
Over the last 12 years, this dynamic duo has treated over 38,000 patients across 36 poor villages in Melghat, saving many lives and treating people back to health.
Even as a youngster, Ashish was deeply inspired by Gandhi's call to youth to work in villages. His own grandfather was a leader in the Sarvodaya movement. As a medical student, Ashish used to visit Dr. Prakash Amte who did stellar work in the tribal areas of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra.
Once he graduated, instead of joining a lucrative big-city practice, Ashish knew he could have more impact by working in the poorest and most deprived parts of India. He landed up in beautiful, but poor, Melghat.
Ashish recounts an early experience. A tribal woman of around 30 came to him carrying a very sick infant. The child was severely malnourished and needed to be hospitalized. However, the mother -recently widowed and with no one else to look after her other children at home – refused to admit the child.
"The child will die," Ashish warned her.
"So be it," she replied. "I have four other children to look after and feed".
Ashish was shocked, but realized that she had no other option. The mother and child departed, and the child died. But the incident moved Ashish to work on child nutrition issues with a sense of urgency.
He realized that he and his wife could not serve all 250,000 villagers in the region. He also realized that many deaths were related not to lack of food, but to poor hygiene.
Following the thoughts of Dr. Abhay Bang, they trained tribal women to serve as village health workers, educating and supporting the families with nutrition and hygiene education, primary medical care, and nursing support.
Ashish also encouraged the villagers to start kitchen gardens. He channeled government and community aid to village soup kitchens, and got city experts to teach village women tasty recipes with local vegetables and cereals. These have brought down malnutrition and mortality, and earned Dr. Satav recognition and awards.
When I met Dr. Ashish Satav, his humility, plainspoken manner and commitment moved me beyond words. He shared astounding experiences in a nonchalant manner. For example, when his wife Kavita did a complicated delivery and saved the child, they found that the mother could not produce any breast-milk to feed the child.
A nursing mother herself, Dr. Kavita sent half her own milk to feed the baby -now a healthy boy. As a result, the couple created a program encouraging lactating mothers to donate part of their milk to help save other babies.
While it is shocking to realize the sharp and startling contrast between the India that we experience in our cities versus the pitiable state of affairs just a few hundred miles away, it is also heartening and inspiring to see people like Ashish and Kavita chipping away with great commitment to address and solve these problems. The least we can do is to support them in every way we can.