Kolkata: Buddhu, a 64-year-old ragpicker, lies curled up in a corner of a shanty by the railway tracks in Howrah, which he shares with almost a dozen family members, a brood of chicken and huge sewer rats. A few months ago, Buddhu went to a neighbourhood quack to get treated for a chronic cough. He was suffering from tuberculosis—a disease rampant in this impoverished and polluted part of Howrah. The quack that Buddhu went to took him to German Doctors, a non-governmental organization, or NGO, which has been offering free medical treatment to underprivileged people in Kolkata and its suburbs since 1983.
Tobias Vogt, a German doctor who came to Kolkata seven years ago and decided to stay back, started this practice of using quacks to connect with ailing people, says Harald Kischlat, deputy general secretary of German Doctors. Local quacks are taught to recognize manifestations of tuberculosis and are financially rewarded for bringing patients to camps run by the German NGO, which treats 500-700 people every day all year round.
The NGO was founded in 1983 by a Jesuit priest, Father Bernard Ehlen, as many German doctors wished to offer medical services to poor people in developing countries. “They couldn’t give more time than a few weeks (a year), so Father Ehlen set up this system where willing doctors from Germany come for six weeks by sacrificing their annual leave,” says Dr Kischlat.
Free treatment: Slum-dwellers stand around German Doctors’ mobile clinic in Paharpur, Kolkata. Howrah, where Father Ehlen set up the first German Doctors outpost, now has eight doctors all year round. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The NGO doesn’t pay the doctors. What is more, they are required to pay at least half the airfare. In Kolkata, they stay at a place very close to the slum, which offers basic facilities. “What’s the point of wasting donor money on five-star hotels,” asks Dr Kischlat. This helps doctors understand local problems better, according to Helga Kuntz, who is visiting Kolkata for the first time.
Howrah, where Father Ehlen set up the first German Doctors outpost, now has eight doctors all year round, apart from Dr Vogt, who speaks almost perfect Hindi and Bengali. “Every year we send about 75 doctors and till now, almost 2,300 German doctors have made more than 4,500 trips to Kolkata,” says Dr Kischlat, who claims the NGO spends around €700,000 (Rs4.46 crore) on treating people in Kolkata alone. German Doctors runs some 13 “medical missions” or clinics in countries such as India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Kenya and Nicaragua.
In Kolkata, German Doctors runs four clinics every day, each staffed by two German doctors and nurses supplied by its local partner, Howrah South Point–an NGO. German Doctors also supports vaccination and immunization camps, and runs mobile clinics.
The NGO is largely dependent on donor contributions and patrons such as German television star Maria Furtwangler, who travelled to Kolkata recently to shoot a documentary on the clinics in the city. Furtwangler, who is a doctor by education and was introduced to the NGO some 11 years ago, helps raise funds. “The television company we are shooting the documentary for said they needed a face—a celebrity—to sell the good work they (German Doctors) are doing here. So I am here,” said Furtwangler, who has travelled to Kolkata twice before. Furtwangler is married to Hubert Burda, CEO of Burda Media with which HT Media Ltd, publisher of Mint, has a joint venture.
Almost 85% of the €5 million that German Doctors received in donations in 2007 came from individual donors, according to Dr Kischlat. It also receives funds from aid agencies run by the German government. “However, with our activities and the number of people we treat increasing, we need more Indian individuals and companies to come forward and support us,” says Dr Kischlat.