Dr Bharat Vatwani

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A profile

July 27, 2018: India Times

Magsaysay Award winner Dr Bharat Vatwani and his wife, Dr Smitha, built Shraddha Rehabilitation Home in Karjat where 120 “wanderers” stay at any given time. “Although we have helped around 7,000 people so far, we have proper records only since 2006 when our Karjat centre came up,” he said. Since 2006, they have treated and reunited 5,489 patients. “This year so far, we have managed to reunite 485 people,’’ he added.

Vatwani said he was ecstatic at the “international recognition” for his work. “I only hope this will bring the focus on the wandering mentally ill people on our roads.” Schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by delusions and hallucinations and “hearing of voices”, affects roughly one million Indians every year.

Vatwani said awareness about mental illnesses like schizophrenia was poor in India. People to this day ask him why a person hailing from a “good home” should live on the street. “People don’t realise it’s a condition that needs regular medication and attention. Hopefully, the Magsaysay award will reduce the stigma as well.”

Dr Vatwani has a 98% success in treating and reuniting patients with families. The secret? “We have a great team of social workers from different parts of the country who manage to connect with the patient, and help trace the family.”

It was a chance encounter in a restaurant that started the psychiatrist-couple on their journey. “We noticed a man whose behaviour and mannerisms left us in no doubt that he had schizophrenia.” A few minutes later, the man picked up an empty coconut shell from the road, scooped out some gutter water with it to drink. They rushed to him and asked him if he would come with them as they could help him. The man did, and months later, the couple reunited him with his family in Andhra Pradesh. It turned out the man was a science graduate who had completed a course in pathology.

The Shraddha centre does not admit people brought by kin or alcoholics and drug addicts. “Our ambulances only pick up the mentally ill.” They have over the years rescued a Delhi-trained doctor and a chartered accountant who, on treatment, named a posh address in Mumbai as his home.

Dr Harish Shetty, who worked with the doctor couple in BMC hospitals over two decades ago, said the doctor did what he believed in. “He didn’t toe lines but went all-out to help patients. He never attended medical conferences or sought fellowship, but ceaselessly did his work,” he added.

Work at Shraddha is entirely funded through charity. “We get contributions through word of mouth and we get enough to help all our patients,” Vatwani said. He is not keen to expand his operations. “We need other doctors and NGOs to replicate this so that wandering mentally ill across the country could be helped,” he said.

Psychiatrist Dr Bharat Shah, who has been Dr Vatwani’s friend since MBBS days at JJ Hospital, said, “He took up the task of helping the homeless mentally ill at a time when he was himself struggling to establish a practice.” Shah said his friend’s commitment to the cause was unusual. “The destitute and mentally ill are not in a position to reward any one. It takes a lot of inner drive of a different kind to take up such a task,” Shah added.

Ask Vatwani for his inspiration, and pat comes the reply, “I couldn’t have done this without Baba Amte. I used to meet him and he has been my inspiration.’’ The couple have a biological daughter, and have adopted three children—two boys and a girl—from the Missionaries of Charity, Vile Parle.

Youk Chhang from Cambodia, Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz from East Timor, Howard Dee from the Philippines and Vo Thi Hoang Yen rom Vietnam are other winners of the award in 2018.

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