Deo Kumar Saraf has a formidable calling—he’s been chosen to save lives—and he’s fulfilling it by building one hospital at a time. The amazing part is that Saraf’s hospitals and diagnostic centres are meant for economically challenged patients as they offer treatment at inexpensive rates. These medical facilities bring modern medicine to hundreds of thousands who would have been left for dead if not for the vision and compassion of this 60 year-old resident of Kolkata.
“Nothing gives me more joy than watching the relief and amazement on the faces of people recovering from life-threatening illness,” says Saraf, founder of the Anandalok group of hospitals and a staunch follower of Swami Vivekananda. It’s been a long and emotional journey, which began in 1959. He was only 16 years old but the sole breadwinner of his family as his mother had walked out on her abusive husband, children in tow. “I worked as an accounts assistant with a private firm, on a monthly salary of Rs 250. We rented a small flat for Rs 125 per month. We had to make ends meet with what was left. So I used to walk 11 km each way, every day, from our home in Eastern Kolkata to my workplace in Central Kolkata, to save the bus fare, which was 20 paise for each journey,” he recounts.
A couple of years later, his brother took ill but the young Saraf didn’t have enough money for the two, lifesaving units of blood that his brother required. Back then, it cost a princely sum of Rs 60. Unable to muster the cash, his brother died, and Saraf took a solemn vow: to take cutting-edge medical treatment to the poor. That was no idle promise. The Anandalok group he later founded now runs four hospitals in Salt Lake, Kolkata, two on the outskirts of the city and one in Jharkhand.
Saraf is the epitome of humility and his mission started in equally humble circumstances. He first opened a dispensary in a garage leased to him by the then chief secretary of West Bengal, who had heard of Saraf’s plan. Opened in 1981, this modest setup had just three treatment facilities: paediatrics, eye care and tuberculosis. But space was not the only requirement; Saraf needed money to keep the dispensary running. “We required Rs 3,000 every month to run the facility. I raised money by giving tuitions and asking everyone I knew to donate what they could.”
Word spread about this medical missionary, and then chief minister Jyoti Basu stepped in to help. He leased Saraf a large plot for his cause, at a throwaway price. Thereafter, help started coming in and five years on, Saraf opened his first Anandalok hospital at Salt Lake. The facility boasted state-of-the-art equipment and reputed medical experts. In no time, it became the only destination for the poor from Kolkata and beyond.
The years went by and the Anandalok hospitals thrived. Then, Saraf stood at another crossroads. He recalls, “One day, I came across a woman from a middle-class family who had run out of funds to treat her son who had a heart condition. The young man was in need of an intensive cardiac care unit (ICCU) but they could not afford it. Things were so dire that the woman said he was praying for deliverance, one way or another,” he says.
Saraf was so moved that he decided to open an ICCU at the first Anandalok hospital in Salt Lake, the first facility of its kind in any of his hospitals. Staffed by reputed specialists and equipped with the best facilities on offer, he put intensive cardiac care within reach of middle-class and poor patients. Never before had anyone paid as little as Rs 75 a day for an ICCU bed.
Driven by the massive response from patients, Saraf also opened ICCUs at the Anandalok hospitals in Bhawanipur and Raniganj. But his zeal to serve knew no bounds. He crunched data from hospitals all over the world, garnered the support of medical experts and banks, and finally started offering all ICCU facilities and treatment at unbelievably economical rates.
So, for instance, coronary bypass surgery cost as little as Rs 45,000 when it was introduced at Anandalok, Salt Lake, in 2002. It was this journey that led to the opening of a modern cath lab and coronary bypass surgery unit on a plot donated by an industrialist at Salt Lake, and at Raniganj, in Burdwan district in 2013.
In addition to the super-speciality cardiac care these hospitals offer, Saraf has always had a special place in his heart for patients with ophthalmic problems. He’s been bespectacled since childhood and has therefore consistently kept an eye on this specialty and Anandalok is now a destination for patients who need advanced ophthalmic treatment.
Over the years, the Anandalok Trust has expanded to embrace other social missions, such as low-cost housing projects in 2005-6; a monthly food ration programme; and sinking tube wells in villages to provide potable water, among others.
How is it possible for one man to achieve so much in one lifetime? The answer, according to Deo Kumar Saraf, is not how much one can achieve but the heart with which one approaches one’s calling.
— Partha Mukherjee
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