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David’s India Trip Part 2: A visit to the barefoot acupuncturists of Mumbai

Posted on 11/03/2013 by Health Wise

After visiting Rishikesh and studying with yoga master and naturopath, Ram Gupta, I travelled to Mumbai. I've made many trips to Mumbai as one of my daughters lives in this city and I generally do some ayurvedic or naturopathic research whilst here. On this visit, I had the opportunity to visit two acupuncture clinics that are found in the slums - one of them in the East Bandra slums and the other in Dharavi slum. Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia and was featured in the television program "Grand Designs" with Kevin McCloud. It was also the setting for the movie "Slumdog millionaire".

The Slums 

I'd like to share a little about my experience with the slums. My first visit to Dharavi was two years ago, with a slum tour company. I was initially reluctant due to feeling like a poverty voyeur, but what I discovered on the tour was the amazing level of entrepreneurship within the slums, the high level of employment within slum dwellers, their amazing ability to recycle everything and their very strong sense of community. Dharavi covers an area of 1.7 km square and is home to over 1 million people, (bare in mind this is low rise and not high rise living).

Dharavi is a legal slum which means that the occupants have legal rights and power to their dwellings.  There are illegal slums that spring up where ever there is vacant land, only to be torn down again by the authorities. A big problem for slum dwellers is relocation. Often land is sold to a developer to build a high rise apartment block and residents are relocated to these modern apartments in compensation for losing their home in the slum. The problem with this is that they lose the sense of community and the ability to sit outside their dwelling and chat to their neighbours.

Most slum dwellers are born in the slums and will live there their whole lives. Many are employed in the slums in various industries; others go outside to work as the drivers, maids and cooks for Mumbai families. Other slum dwellers have completed higher education and work as professionals in the city but return to their homes in the slum in the evening.

While there is a high level of employment among slum dwellers, the level of employment generally offers a subsistent existence so there are lots of opportunities to help these people with education and healthcare.

Barefoot Acupuncturists

One of the people doing a lot to help the slum dwellers is Walter Fischer. Walter is a Belgium national who trained in Acupuncture in Switzerland and China, he is the co-founder and head acupuncturist of "Barefoot Acupuncturists" in India. Walter describes this style of acupuncture fittingly as humanitarian acupuncture - treatment for those who cannot afford it. Five clinics have now been established, three in Mumbai and two in Tamil Nadu (southern India). Walter helped run a free health camp that in 2007 which was hugely successful and led to the establishment of the permanent clinic in August of that year.

I visited the clinic to meet Walter and his very capable assistant and translator, Ujwala. My daughter, Andrea, came to help as a translator. Andrea has worked and lived in Mumbai for 5 years and is now happily married to a wonderful man, Nuru. In the past Andrea has worked in the NGO sector helping set up creches on building sites and later helping the poor access higher education through a wonderful NGO called "Help a child to study". This charity has assisted many poor talented children through higher education to become doctors, engineers and teachers. To sponsor a child through grade 11 or 12 costs about A$70 per year, a small sum to change a life. We at HealthWise sponsor some children who are now at university.

I was quite excited to be visiting Barefoot Acupuncturists and to see how acupuncture translated into local use. My initial feelings were that this was a wonderful thing to do, but really expected to see a very basic clinic and not one where I would personally be happy to seek treatment. What I found on arriving was a very professional clinic that had been newly painted (due to monsoons walls need painting yearly), a very high level of energy among Walter and his staff, each treatment couch and treatment chair with willing happy patients, and a waiting room full of patients awaiting treatments.

Acupuncture training is available in India and Walter has a willing team to treat the patients. One of Walter's roles is to help up-skill the local practitioners. He welcomes acupuncturists from other countries with experience to spend time and work with the local practitioners and share their knowledge and experience. Walters dream is for this model to spread throughout India and beyond. In the future Walter hopes to publish a book on humanitarian acupuncture.

Patients are charged a fee of 20 rupees (about $0.37 AUD) and even this small amount is wavered, if necessary.  The 20 rupee fee barely covers the cost of the disposable needles - an aid agency gives some help and individual donors are also supporting the clinic.

Three days a week are reserved for treating only women, the other days men and women are treated simultaneously. In India, women are more likely to spend the money on family and not on themselves. The very low treatment fee encourages more women to seek treatment.  Most patients come for the treatment of pain, with the practitioners trying to ascertain the root cause of the problem and addressing that in the treatment.

I gained a great deal from my time in the Barefoot Acupuncturists and was inspired by the dedication of the staff and the gratitude of the patients. I have made a commitment to go back and work with the staff in the clinic, as I feel they have much to teach me and hopefully I have something to share with them. I would have no hesitation in recommending the clinic to family and friends in India.

Please check out the Barefoot Acupuncturist website for more information.

You can see photos from David's travel in India here.


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