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Going global with the Jaipur Foot

As a senior executive with the Asian Development Bank in Manila and earlier positions with India’s ministries of railways as well as shipping and transport, as also with public and private sector corporations, Mr VR Mehta visited several countries. Along with his wife, a former journalist, he became involved with various social activities. One of these was the initiative to introduce the Jaipur Foot to the needy in lands as disparate as  the Philippines and Afghanistan.

As a member on the board of the nonprofit, Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS), which has brought the famed low-cost prosthetic, the Jaipur Foot, to the world, Mr Mehta has been a driving force behind many of the initiatives to make the prosthetic more accessible. BMVSS today has 22 centers across India; the Delhi centre, set up in 1993, which today fits 6,000 limbs annually, is headed by Mr Mehta.

In December 2010, Mr Mehta and his wife were felicitated by the Philippines Parliament for the aid extended by them to the people of the island nation. The story goes back several decades, to 1985, a story that had not only touched many lives, but involved dozens of people in an inspirational saga of extending warmth and help to fellow human beings. Mr Mehta, in a conversation with Shubha Madhukar, recounts how the idea of bringing Jaipur Foot to the Philippines took birth, flight and yielded results, and in the process helped the disabled regain their mobility, independence, self-worth and dignity.

In the Philippines

Once, while grocery shopping, my wife saw a vendor on crutches and asked him why he didn't get himself artificial limbs. The vendor said that it was too expensive and beyond his reach. On her return home, she asked me if we could bring the Jaipur Foot to the Philippines. I was already an executive member of the BMVSS but not too keen about introducing the prosthetic to another country — I was pressed for time with my workload and related activities. But my wife prevailed upon me to make a start. She was a journalist and knew how to get things moving. She met the Philippines Minister of Social Welfare and Development, Mito Pardo de Tavera, to get the initiative going in the Philippines. And it worked.

We then set up the Mahaveer Philippines Foundation and, in 1986, brought in the first team of  Jaipur Foot experts from India. Initially starting with only two technicians and imported materials (rods, pipes and even plaster of Paris) from India, we fitted about 40 amputees with the Jaipur Foot, free of cost, at the University of Santo Tomas Hospital in Manila. The team worked 12-hour days and were accommodated in our house for the duration of their stay.

Then, one day, after I had left for the office, our housekeeper came running to inform my wife that the then Mayor of Manila, Ramon D Bagatsing, had come visiting. Himself an amputee, he had learned about the Jaipur Foot and wanted to meet us to extend his help and support.

Hearing about our work from someone in the Indian community, India's ambassador in the Philippines offered to help with some publicity. But since BMVSS has a policy of no publicity, I refused.

In 1988, a larger team came from India (and then again in 1989). Though we had the necessary permissions to bring materials to the country, there were some delays in custom clearance. As the team, with the huge cartons, waited at the Manila airport some journalists present got curious — in fact, they thought that some smuggled goods had been seized. They approached the team members, spoke to them, saw one of the team members walk, run and jump wearing a Jaipur Foot (many of the technicians use the Jaipur Foot themselves) and so enthused were they that they reported it the next day. This incident helped spread awareness about the Jaipur Foot in the country.

In 1988 and 1989, the team worked at The Philippine Orthopedic Center. Nearly 150 patients were fitted with the Jaipur Foot at each camp. At the end of each such camp, I would throw a party at my home and invite all beneficiaries and some other well-known people. This would generate interest in influential circles.

We eventually opened an outlet at the Philippine Orthopedic Center. Today, BMVSS has three centres in Manila (2) and Zambonga (1), and fits about 500 to 700 patients a year in the Philippines.

I wanted to make sure the work in the Philippines continued even after my retirement and in my absence. To help collect funds, I got an eight-minute documentary on BMVSS and the Jaipur Foot made by Lintas, and showed this at several big corporations. The idea for making the film was mooted by the late Dr Ramon Bagatsing (he passed away in 2006). We collected about five million pesos (the equivalent of Rs7.5 million), which became the core of a corpus fund, the interest from which now funds the organisation in Manila.

Onward to Pakistan and Afghanistan

Pakistan denied us — BMVSS members — a visa for two years. Then we met the then Pakistan Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr SM Qureshi, and told him how the Jaipur Foot — unlike many western prostheses — allows a person to remove the shoe to enter the mosque and ever offer namaaz.This evoked his interest immediately. We received a very warm welcome and today we have two centres in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, we have held camps and the response there has been heartwarming too. We were given special protection and everywhere we went, the people showered us with immense gratitude and affection. They would not even allow us to pay for the things we wanted to buy. That was embarrassing!

Ongoing research

Research on a 'Jaipur Hand' is in progress and two universities — Harvard and Stanford — are working in tandem with us on this. We have also developed the Jaipur Knee in collaboration with the Stanford University.

There have already been several improvements in the Jaipur Foot since it was first designed nearly four decades back in 1969. Among these, a major improvement is the use of a special polyethylene composite made by Dow Chemicals, which helps make the foot-piece lighter and more malleable.

The Jaipur Foot is functionally superior but, because it was developed in a developing country and is mostly used in developing countries, it is perceived as 'poor man's technology'.

Even the US government has shown interest in bringing this technology to its people. I believe that in 2009, when Mr Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Sons was in Washington and he met President Barack Obama, the Jaipur Knee was discussed.

The patenting issue

People often ask us why the Jaipur Foot has not been patented. We believe that if we patent it, we will be restricting its use. It is an open technology and allows people to copy it. While this gives greater access to those who need it, we are discovering that there is a downside.

Sometimes, manufacturers are producing the prosthetic with total disregard to quality; when this is promoted as the 'Jaipur Foot', we are blamed and get a bad name. This causes us concern and we have been thinking what we can do about it. So far, we haven't even patented the Jaipur Knee.

The management guru late Dr CK Prahlad said that if the Jaipur Foot venture had been started in the West, it would have been a USD2-billion venture!