NRI doctor's healing touch

PHOTO: NRI doctor's healing touch

Tears well in Dr Natteri Chandran's eyes as he recounts his visit in 1993 to Edaikazhinadu in Tamil Nadu to find a shambolic settlement with harrowing living standards.

"It took me six hours by road to reach there and conditions were disturbing, disastrous to say the least, with no roads, no infrastructure, no healthcare for about 26,000 people," says Dr Chandran (right, with wife Chitra), the genial, salt-and-pepper haired Melbourne-based psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and educator at the University of Melbourne, who migrated to Australia 42 years ago.

"The primary school, with 220 students, had no teacher, the school building was absolutely rundown, no toilets... I can just go on and on about the appalling conditions."

Shocked, he decided to adopt the village, south of Chennai in the town of Kadapakkam, as part of his longer-term vision to start The East West Foundation of India (TEWFI), a volunteer-driven charitable foundation which aims to ease the suffering of poor and disadvantaged people overseas.

Today, two decades down the road, Edaikazhinadu, a remote farming and fishing community, is a rural role-model on "how to engage rural Indians, especially the younger generation, with a holistic approach to improve living standards", says Dr Chandran.

With a staff of 52, TEWFI has given a major face-lift to the community's 32,000 population through a range of initiatives in healthcare, education, child rights and relief, community development, and environmental sustainability.

"There are no plans to replicate efforts in other parts of India, it is intended to use the experience and knowledge gained from the programmes in Tamil Nadu in other developing countries," he says. "We've also established and maintained links with other NGOs active in similar or related projects in order to share information and experiences and operate in a more efficient and effective manner," he says.

His success story has inspired global donations from Australia (where he has been working with his 65-year-old doctor-wife Chitra for the last four decades), Britain, USA and India. Individuals and organisations donate funds, valuable skills and resources.

Dr Chitra is a renowned consultant paediatrician, specialising in children and teenagers with developmental and behavioural issues. She is also a consultant at the Behaviour Clinic at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital.

Says Dr Chandran, who was born in 1946 in Chennai and studied medicine as a national merit scholar at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research in Pondicherry: "Most importantly, we ensure transparency and accountability of all donations made within India or from overseas. We're recognised by the government of India as a charitable and educational foundation. We also obtained permission from the Reserve Bank of India to receive foreign funds directly into our account."

He is evidently devoted to his cause. He believes in paying back to Indian society. His social conscience has been "alert" since his youth. While in college, he was secretary of the Pondicherry Students' Association and when he moved to Australia in 1971 he continued sending money home to his father, who worked in leprosy research, and to fund a schizophrenia care and research centre.

To sustain these community-based commitments, Dr Chandran raised awareness and funds as a teaching associate at Melbourne University. "I realised if I could get more people involved, obviously our contribution towards the disadvantaged in India would be greater. With this in mind, we set up TEWFI."

He treasures his role as an overseas Indian and speaks passionately of his "desire to give back to the society that nurtured and raised me".

Poignantly, he remembers the inspiring lines from former Indian president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: "First you must perform your duties for your adopted country. But remember you have an umbilical connection with India. We have a mission and you can be part of it. We want to make India prosperous, happy and safe by 2020."

Dr Chandran's primary focus now is on the younger generation and women, to provide them with emergency shelter and care (physical, mental and spiritual), especially to abandoned, orphaned and children at risk, primarily girls at the Uluru Children's Home (UCH), located near the Alamparai village. Currently, there are over 40 children in the home.

Why Uluru?

"It is the obvious Australia-India connection," he says. "Coincidentally, the aboriginal name of Australia's Ayers Rock is Uluru, and in Tamil, it means 'land deep inside'."

Quality education is another priority with academic, vocational, computers, the arts and sports to help the poorer village children to develop their potential whilst in residence.

"The education of children in the surrounding community is also supported by assisting the local schools in infrastructure projects and by the funding of specific teaching positions," he says.

At UCH, which Dr Chandran calls his "pet community project", the children are given more than shelter, food and clothing. "They are in a safe, loving and caring environment. Just as important, the children have access to healthcare and education, which are crucial in giving them life prospects they would otherwise be denied if they remained in their prior circumstances," he says.

"The multi-functional Computer Education Centre, located near the Children's Home, provides computer education as part of vocational training and serves as a knowledge centre with access to vital technical, educational and employment information online," he added.

"There are mobile computer vans offering a range of computer classes, supporting the education of the community children and adults in subjects such as maths, science, English and computer skills."

But the last two decades have not been a proverbial bed of roses.

Dr Chandran faced umpteen challenges, from bureaucratic red tape to raising funds and even his precarious cancer-related medical condition. But he is inspired to continue because of the "positive changes".

"It comes slowly, perhaps surely, but seeing the faces of the younger generation of village folks keeps me going. Never for a moment did I want to throw in the towel," says the father of two, whose 35-year-old son Shiv is a Singapore-based lawyer and 37-year-old daughter Aditi works in New York as a lawyer.

For his benevolent deeds, Dr Chandran was awarded the American Biographical Institutes's Man of the Year Commemorative Medal, honouring community service and professional achievement in 1995, and the Prime Minister of Australia's Certificate of Recognition for extraordinary contribution to the community and Australia in 2001. He was recognised in India with the Hind Rattan national award in New Delhi in 2004 for his dedicated service to the community.

He reluctantly admits that he had a "very scary phase in life" in the mid-1990s, when he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. "Hey, I'm still ticking! I reckon someone up there likes me and wants to extend my queue-line to go up," he says, with a smile. "If I ever had to turn back the clock, I wouldn't have done it differently because I'm very passionate about repaying back to Indian society, especially in engaging the rural folks."