By Jan Auerbach, Rotary Club of McLean
India has succeeded in being polio-free for one year through the concerted effort of its government and countless other organizations, particularly Rotary. There are nine or more National Inoculation Days per year throughout the country--at least twice per year in every location and six times in high risk areas—when families bring children to local centers to be vaccinated.
For three to six days after the initial day, workers go house to house to vaccinate the remaining children. Each year, through the efforts of 2.3 million vaccinators and 150,000 supervisors, 172 million children are vaccinated and 220 million houses are visited.
This year, 24 Rotarians from the United States participated in National Inoculation Day on February 19 in Dahnbad, a city in West Bengal of 2 million people. I was one of them. While we did get to give the vaccine to many children, our main role was to demonstrate, through traveling such a long distance to be there, the importance of the work the vaccinators were doing. It was thrilling to actually administer the vaccine and know that we were helping a child avoid a very dreaded disease.
Our team leader, Nancy Barbee from District 7730 in North Carolina, was making her 18th trip to India. We were fortunate that Nancy was well known and well regarded by her Indian counterparts. Members of two clubs in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and the club in Dahnbad welcomed us as family.
These Rotarians took us to see many projects they have organized and/or funded in their locality: eye clinics, pediatric cardiac surgical units, artificial limb clinics for polio victims, schools for blind and mentally challenged students, and “girl toilets” in public schools (toilets with running water so girls can continue their education after they reach puberty). Because there are many fewer non-profit organizations to improve the plight of the disadvantaged, the over 110,000 Rotarians in India often direct these projects themselves.
Their concern for the poor, and the time and energy they expend to improve their health and welfare, won our admiration and awe. We spent four nights as guests of Dahnbad Rotarians. They drove us when we went to deliver the polio vaccine and view their projects, dined with us, danced with us, and shared their love of Rotary with us. We all left as friends.
While the main purpose of the trip was to view and participate in Rotary projects, there was some time to sightsee and much time to see Indian life.
The Taj Mahal is all it is advertised to be: truly a stunning structure—gleaming white marble that seems almost ethereal in the afternoon sun. A kilometer away is the Red Fort—unknown to many Westerners but almost equally as striking. Built about the same time as the Taj (late 16th and early 17th century), its outside walls are red sandstone. What makes it remarkable is its size—about a mile and a half in circumference. One ornate building and parade ground after another inside its massive walls. Some of the scrollwork with jewel inlay—very similar to that in the Taj—is being restored. If ever completed, it will rival the Taj as a wonder of the world.
Another memorable attraction was the large Sikh temple Bangla Sahib Gurudwara in Delhi. Volunteers prepare and serve food there to 10,000 people every day. No one is turned away and everyone—no matter their level in society—is treated the same. The doors open and waves of people file in single file and sit on the floor in neat rows. They are served a full dinner on something resembling a TV dinner tray. Once finished, that group files out and another files in. Hundreds of volunteers work every day peeling fruit, cooking vegetables, making soup in huge vats, and cooking flatbread. Despite the massive numbers of people involved, the operation is very orderly and efficient.
We traveled extensively by bus and got a good sense of living conditions. On the streets of Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta), we saw dogs eating from garbage cans, three-wheeled yellow/green cabs with canvas tops; bicycle cabs, a man on a motorcycle holding his son with his wife on back, lepers, beggars, and lots of people trying to sell you things.
Men often had Nike and other recognizable labels on their shirts. Most women wore saris but many younger women wore long tunics and leggings, with a scarf around their neck.
Dust is everywhere. Structures are all of concrete. Many appeared to be under construction but abandoned at some earlier time. Despite summer temperatures reaching into the 120s, central air conditioning is uncommon except in the most modern hotels, office buildings, and restaurants. We saw many wall unit air conditioners.
Streets are filled with shacks of people selling food and goods.
At our hotel and all major restaurants and large private homes, there is a security gate and guard. At the hotel, we then had to pass through two metal detectors.
In the rural areas, shanties are made of corrugated metal, tarp, or cow dung. Pollution and dust hang over everything.
Gas stations have price sign boards but prices are rarely listed.
Men sweep the dirt but there is more dirt underneath. Garbage is everywhere.
People often ride on the top of trucks.
As if we were living 100 years ago, we saw two oxen pulling a plow and people planting rice by hand. Boys were washing cows in streams and in lakes where people were swimming. The poverty is immense. Unemployment is high. However, we saw a largely industrious people who might live in a slum but still dress and carry themselves well.
It is a country of huge disparity between rich and poor but also a land of promise, where 60% of adults are literate and where democratic ideals are prized.
The Taj Mahal
A man being fitted with a new artificial limb at the Jaipur Limb Center, and the new limbs
Jan ready to give polio vaccine to a child
Polio victim on the street of Old Delhi