Health Promotion Trust’s Successes at the Grassroots

by Fr. Rocky Banz

Soaring costs of medicines, laboratory tests and hospitalisation trap the marginalised and the impoverished in urban and rural communities in an endless loop of debt, poor healthcare, and an extremely diminished quality of life. In 2010, the Health Promotion Trust (HPT) of the Archdiocese of Bombay determined that education and empowerment at the grassroots is the only compassionate response to lift people out of this pit of hopelessness and despair. Hence HPT began the last decade with a grassroots-centred mission statement: "To ensure better health awareness, strengthen existing health facilities, ensure accountability of the health administration, and lay more emphasis on preventive health by encouraging holistic health therapies for the poor and the marginalised."

This statement aligns perfectly with the spirit of Pope Francis' theme for the 30th World Day of the Sick on February 11, namely, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36): Standing beside those who suffer on a path of charity."

Till date, HPT, in collaboration with 35 community-based organisations, and an army of 5,000 trained health workers has responded successfully to the health needs of Katkari tribal communities, fisherfolk, farmers, domestic workers, women and children in slums, HIV+ children and adults, commercial sex workers, migrants, senior citizens, school students, and the clergy in Mumbai, Raigad district and Dharavi Island. The immediate needs of vulnerable groups suffering from chronic illnesses always receive first priority. For example, HPT provided nutritional support for approximately 50 TB patients in the rural areas of Mahad and Mangaon.

HPT's first step was to recognise that the key to sustainable self-healing lies within the abode of Mother Nature - in sunshine, life-giving water, fruits, vegetables, spices, medicinal plants and herbs like aloe vera, brahmi, tulsi, adulsa, pudina and a hundred others. The next step was to train its target groups to use this key to open the door to sustainable self-healing, especially for simple ailments and preventable diseases. HPT recognised that the most effective and empathetic way to create a "path to charity" is by journeying to the place where the oppressed live, and identifying motivated individuals from amidst this group to make their fellow community members aware of alternative paths to good health.

"Your hands, which touch the suffering flesh of Christ, can be a sign of the merciful hands of the Father." HPT's health care workers truly embody a spirit of empathy and solidarity with the people they serve.

Thus began HPT's 'barefoot' health worker trainings, where men and women are trained for two years, and then certified to conduct preventive health awareness programmes in their respective communities. In 2017, HPT enrolled a few committed health workers in an advanced preventive healthcare training. Most of them are from the Katkari tribe, which is considered one of the most primitive tribes in Maharashtra. They have been instrumental in helping to revive sustainable and affordable traditional healthcare practices. In thanking healthcare workers, Pope Francis said, "Your hands, which touch the suffering flesh of Christ, can be a sign of the merciful hands of the Father." HPT's healthcare workers truly embody a spirit of empathy and solidarity with the people they serve.

This spirit shone radiantly through HPT's interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic. HPT-trained health workers served as frontline workers, supporting medical personnel in door-to-door awareness programmes, and in-person clinic services, educating people about healthy dietary practices and natural measures to ensure long term physical healing, and promoting immunity building strategies. The goal was to make people accountable for their own health during the crisis. HPT also arranged to provide essential medicines to needy people suffering from co-morbidities to help them fight infections.

As part of the endeavour to look to Nature for healing, HPT established five herbal gardens in Raigad district to make herbal remedies accessible to all, since they are an affordable and chemical-free treatment option. The health workers help extract the medicinal components from these herbs, and train their communities to practise herbal remedies within their own homes. Pranjali, a health worker from Krupa Niwas Kendra, Korlai shared, "One of the members of my community, aged 42 years, was suffering from severe pain due to piles. I advised his wife to roast jeera, make a paste, and apply it to the affected area." Another health worker shared, "My close friend used to suffer from frequent headaches for which I recommended tea made with lemon grass and ginger. She told me that after she began drinking this tea regularly, the frequency of her headaches decreased. I also asked her to have her meals at the same time every day, since erratic eating habits can cause acidity which contributes to frequent headaches."

Nowhere can one see a more powerful testament to the effectiveness of grassroots power than at HPT's annual Health Rallies. Hundreds of men and women gather at this annual event, and through multicultural dances and entertaining skits share the life-changing impact of a healthy diet, exercise, yoga, pranayama and other lifestyle changes.

"The World Day of the Sick is also a good occasion to focus our attention on centres of care," says Pope Francis.

HPT has set up three Holistic Health Centres in Juhu, Gorai and Mahim to bring naturopathic treatments to low income neighbourhoods. These Centres are staffed by personnel who not only share their expertise, but lend a listening ear to every patient's chronic health problems, reflecting Pope Francis' call to be close to the sick and the poor. Another outreach programme catering to the psycho-social and spiritual needs of senior citizens is the Community Centre for Senior Citizens that has been established in collaboration with the Adhata Trust at Our Lady of Victories Church, Mahim.

To evaluate the effectiveness of its education and training programmes, HPT staff interviewed health workers and staff of partner organisations. Their feedback bas been published in a recent study titled 'A Systematic Study of the Impact of Health Promotion Trust's Preventive Healthcare Interventions on the Lives of People from 2010-2020'. The study highlights the positive outcomes of educating people about natural healthcare measures that are both cost-effective and safe, and the advantages of identifying people from the tribal communities to work as arogyasevikas and implement HPT's programmes in the remote areas of Raigad district.

Pope Francis draws our attention to Jesus' words in the Gospel, "I was sick and you visited me." (Mt 25:36) The Health Promotion Trust aims to continue serving the urban and rural poor from all backgrounds by providing them the resources, tools and support to emerge from the cycle of chronic disease and ill health.

Fr Rocky Banz is the Director of Health Promotion Trust and parish Priest of Church of Our Lady of Victories, Mahim.