Hope in the hills
Dr. H. Sudarshan helps the Soligas create their own destiny
Also see : Interview with Dr.Sudarshan, on the Karnataka Health Task Force

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September 1998 - When Dr. Hanumappa Reddy Sudarshan first set out into the hills, he had little idea of where his choice would take him. At first, he ventured out offering cures to various illnesses of the forests like snakebites and attacks by wild animals, as well as the more usual maladies, like leprosy, water-borne illnesses, and blindness. As more and more people sought his services, he quickly shifted to preventive medicine and habits, hoping to ward off the diseases that struck down people before they had a chance to set in. With just one assistant, he set about establishing various programs in the forest that have each grown to fruition amazingly.

In the 20 years he has worked with the Soligas, Dr.Sudarshan has achieved remarkable feats, far beyond any that government efforts could ever have. Consider this: his medical team has brought incidences of leprosy down from 17 per 1000 people to less that 0.3, hard water epilepsy has been nearly wiped out by reeducating the Soligas about hygiene. A housing program initiated by him has provided homes for over 200 families that earlier lived in makeshift huts. Low-cost cataract operations, funded by supportive donors, have ensured that hundreds of poor now have little fear of going blind prematurely.

Along the way, Dr.Sudarshan has retained many tribal moorings which give the Soligas their identity. He has incorporated tribal medicine into his own practice as well as at nearby hospitals. The school for the Soligas, boasting one of the lowest drop-out rates in the state, teaches not merely the skills of the modern world, but much about the resources of the forest as well. Students from the trappings of tribal poverty have found their way into the urban world of universities and professionalism, and true to the spirit of service which got them there, they have returned to serve the tribals as doctors or in the Forest Services.

Dr.Sudarshan has also maintained an integrity of purpose in his service which is exemplary. Drawing no income for his services, he maintains a modest lifestyle supported by well-wishers and donors. When the Swedish parliament awarded him the Right Livelihood Award for 1994, Dr.Sudarshan donated the entire $86,000 award to the betterment of the Soligas. Drawn deeply into the lives of the people he serves, the doctor stood his ground in protest when the Soligas were dispossessed of their land by the government. Despite being arrested for this, he refused to yield, and went on an indefinite fast instead, at which the government quickly backtracked.

It is an enduring irony of genuine public service in India that at a later date, Dr.Sudarshan has been honored by the same government for his contributions to the Soligas. The Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra, which he set up in 1981, has blossomed into a tribal upliftment program with few peers anywhere in the country. It has the complete support of the government of Karnataka, and functions with the autonomy needed to be effective. For his part, from the very founding of the Kendra, the doctor assigned himself only supportive roles, leaving much of the decision-making authority to the Soligas themselves, and later to neighboring tribes as well.

As with so many others who have served the downtrodden, Dr.Sudarshan has achieved much by trusting the Soligas to be capable of creating their own destiny, needed only the support of others and encouragement. As his fame has spread, the doctor has received support from around the world. ASHA-LA conducted a fund-raising drive for his efforts, collecting over $3000 in short time.

Subramaniam Vincent
September 1998

Dr.Sudarshan can be contacted at
Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra
BR Hills 571441, Yelandur Taluk, Mysore Dist,
Phone: 08226-84025-80125