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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Can the Jaipur foot help injured animals?

Can the Jaipur foot help injured animals?

After helping nearly 1.3 million disabled people, the iconic prosthetic makers are turning their attention to animals

The BMVSS’ office in Jaipur. Photo: Shoba NarayanPremium
The BMVSS’ office in Jaipur. Photo: Shoba Narayan

Before he died, Shaktiman got a prosthetic foot from the US. Let us consider the Jaipur foot from India. Just as an option.

The Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (Bhagwan Mahaveer Disabled Assistance Organization), or BMVSS, is located in a leafy enclave in Malviya Nagar, Jaipur. I am interested in the organization because it has designed a prosthetic limb for cows.

I am obsessed with cows—I know not why. Perhaps I should visit Newton Kondaveti, the past life regression specialist, and see if I have been a cow in my past life. That would be something, wouldn’t it; to combine all of India’s cultural stereotypes—reincarnation, past life, holy cows, and naming a child Hitler, Stalin or Newton—into one experience.

It isn’t just cows though. I am obsessed with animals: cows, elephants, deer, rhinos, you name it. I look into their eyes and see infinity. Or, rather, I see my evolutionary roots all the way to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. An inquiring gaze from a langur—if you can manage to hold it—can make you forget yourself and link you with eternity.

So I make an appointment with Devendra Raj Mehta, the driving force behind BMVSS, and show up one afternoon.

Like many Indians, I have heard of the Jaipur foot. Like many, I only have a vague idea of what it is. Invented in 1968 by a Jaipur-based orthopaedic surgeon, the late P.K. Sethi, and an illiterate craftsman, Ram Chandra Sharma, who supposedly got the idea when his bike had a puncture, this artificial limb has helped approximately 1.3 million disabled people across 22 Indian states as well as Pakistan, the Philippines and Latin America. Injured soldiers in Afghanistan and Rwanda have used the original version of this foot, which costs about $42 (around 2,800) to make. The BMVSS works with the US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the Indian Institutes of Technology, and other educational institutions to improve the technology of this prosthetic limb, fitted free of cost for anyone who is disabled.

The place is buzzing. One-legged amputees enter using crutches or wheelchairs. They are quickly registered and measured. Two days later, they return for a fitting. Adjustments to their artificial limb are made on the spot. Whirring machines on the side of each large room are used to sand down the prosthetic limb so that it fits correctly. Most of the patients are men. Nurses fit the prosthetic limbs.

Mehta is a tall slim man with a shock of white hair. A former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), and a Padma Bhushan awardee, he is dressed simply in a white kurta-pyjama. When I enter, he is in a meeting with a roomful of similarly clad men: his board of trustees, he tells me.

Why are Jains so much into cow protection? I want to know. Mehta demurs and cites the Constitution, which encourages “compassion" towards all animals, he says. So I begin digging.

The Constitution is one of the very few, if any, legal or political documents that talks about animals. Article 48 of the Constitution says: “The State shall endeavour to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle."

In contrast, everything from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi to the Laws of the Twelve Tables, which became the foundation of Roman law, barely mentions animals. The US constitution is silent in this matter. Most others treat animals in the context of crime and property. “If a quadruped causes injury to anyone, let the owner tender him the estimated amount of the damage," says the seventh Law of the Twelve Tables.

Of the 282 codes of Hammurabi, 11 deal with animals, usually in the context of crime and reparation. Code 263 says, “If the hired herdsman killed the cattle or sheep that were given to him, he shall compensate the owner with cattle for cattle and sheep for sheep." The same argument is made by Adam Ferguson in his influential “Essay On The History Of Civil Society". German economist and jurist Samuel von Pufendorf, while sympathetic to animals, also views them in the context of reparation. “With regard to our animals…. Being of themselves excited contrary to the nature of their kind, they have caused damage to another man, the master should either make good the damage, or surrender the animal," he says. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher who influenced the Enlightenment in France and other parts of Europe, said, “I see nothing in any animal but an ingenious machine," without free will. John Adams, one of the architects of the American constitution, wrote about animals in his diary, but only to state that they were part of the circle of life.

None of these people viewed animals in the same way that India does. None of these nations or cultures codified the protection of animals, specifically the cow, as much as India has done.

So I get what Mehta is saying when he talks about animal protection being codified in the Indian Constitution. The BMVSS calls itself a “secular, non-religious, non-governmental, non-political, non-sectarian, non-regional and non-profit (a lot of nons) organisation set up to help the physically challenged, particularly the financially weak and underprivileged." The scale of operations is staggering, and suited to Indian conditions. The artificial limbs, for example, can be used without shoes or sandals. Their brand ambassador is the classical Bharatanatyam dancer, Sudha Chandran, who lost a foot, got a prosthetic limb, and continues to dance. No appointments need to be made in order to get admitted or fitted. People just show up, and they are helped free of charge.

An assistant takes me on a tour of the facilities. In one corner is the experimental cow’s leg. It looks exactly like a bovine foot. I ask the man if they have tried it out. He nods and says they have tried it out on a couple of disabled animals.

The problem, says Mehta, is the logistics. When farmers have an injured animal, they don’t have the means to bring the injured cow to their facility. Instead, they depend on the organization to help them. “How can I send five nurses all over the state to pick up injured cows and bring them here?" asks Mehta. “I don’t have enough manpower to deal with all the patients here."

He hasn’t given up though. He is looking for additional funding to help them with the logistics of bringing amputated or disabled animals, specifically cows, to the facility. “Next month," he says. “Hopefully next month, we will be ready to help some cows."

Shoba Narayan didn’t bring back a Jaipur foot for cows. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan.

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Published: 26 May 2016, 07:28 PM IST
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