Mar 21, 2017

We are fortunate to have with us Sean Duggan, a long term supporter and journalist from the UK. Sean has been visiting Calcutta Rescue's projects and has written a series of engaging and fun pen stories, which we are calling I Witness.

I Witness- Chitpur.

The woman in the black and white sari sitting in the chair having her foot dressed is 60 years old.

She has been suffering from the effects of leprosy, visible and invisible, since she was an 11 year old girl.

There are no toes on her left foot, which the dressings nurse is carefully wiping with a swab.

Ever since the days of Dr Jack’s first clinic Middleton Row, started 37 years ago, she has been cared for by him and the team at Calcutta Rescue.

Sitting here in the shady heat of its Chitpur Clinic on the banks of the fast-flowing river Hooghly, she is among friends, other patients and the staff who see to her needs.

The clinic specialises in helping people suffering from the disease and its after-effects. It has 277 registered patients, and around 17 come each day for treatment.

Anyone coming here for treatment is guaranteed to be cured within a year and a half as long as they take the drugs prescribed.

But the impact of the disease can be life-long if it is not treated in its early stages.

It is not just the physical effects - lost or seriously maimed fingers, toes, limbs - which may require medical care for the rest of their lives.

But even when they are fully cured people whose bodies bear the marks of the disease are still shunned by many and getting a job can be very hard.

Here at the clinic, staffs know the difficulties they face and are on their side.

Here they get their wounds dressed, have physiotherapy, get treated by a podiatrist, and see a doctor who comes four days a week to look after all their medical needs.

Thick packs of medical documents are lying on the table at one end of the clinic in front of metal cupboards full of large jars containing anti-leprosy drugs and other medications.

In a side room, beyond a private treatment room, a cobbler is using a machine to cut away rubber on the soles of a pair of sandals. He is an expert in crafting bespoke footwear to protect their damaged feet.

In addition, patients like this woman, who is not able to work, get food, clothing and other support.

Through an interpreter I ask her Calcutta Rescue means to her.

The big smile that spreads across her face gives me the answer, even before her words are translated: “I am so grateful. They have given me so much.”



I Witness-Tala Park

Calcutta Rescue’s Tala Park clinic is the big one - so big it resembles an aircraft hangar.

18,000 registered patients, 90 patients treated a day, 30 staff - from physiotherapists to dressings nurses, four doctors, and let’s not forget the ladies who hand out blankets and high-protein food.

There is a busy mother and child health programme, occupational therapy, speech therapy, a health education room, a dressing station, a drug dispensary...

Sixty percent of all the drugs dispensed each day by the charity arrive here in locked metal suitcases early in the morning.

The charity’s disability project is based here, looking after about 140 special needs youngsters.

Oh, and tucked down one end there is half of a school - the other half which has the computer training is two streets away.

So it is big and ugly and the first impression when you enter is one of confusion.

Lots of different things going on all around you with a big waiting area full of women in saris, children, old men.

And lots of smallish rooms with flimsy walls along two sides. When you look at the structure itself you realise that while it looked solid from the outside it is just a huge metal frame with corrugated iron bolted across the top and bars and rather insubstantial walls.

But when the project supervisor explains how it works everything falls into place.

Doors open at 8.45am six days a week and the patients coming in fall into two categories. Those who need immediate treatment - for a fever, a gash on the leg etc etc. These get treated on the spot.

And those who come with conditions that will require long term, expensive treatment, such as HIV, renal failure, heart problems, diabetes…

The doctors assess them and their personal circumstances are recorded.

If they fit Calcutta Rescue’s criteria of being unable to pay for their treatment their case is referred to the MAC (the medical audit committee).

There, a team of doctors and managers make the difficult decisions about whether CR can take on their care.


If they get the green light, staff make an unannounced visit to their home before this is confirmed, just to ensure that they are as needy as they claim.

Clinic staff store all their medical information on handwritten cards in a bank of filing cabinets.

A UK doctor, who had experienced electronic files getting lost frequently in his hospital, said enviously that staff here have located patient files almost before they have sat down.

Throughout the week there are different clinics for different types of patients - from pregnant mums to diabetes. They have just laid-on two extra HIV clinics a month to cope with a sharp increase in diagnoses.

Every patient who comes must do a health education session before they are seen by a doctor.

If patients can get free treatment elsewhere, such as government programmes for Dengue Fever and TB, then the clinic always refers people there.

Asked why patients value what the clinic provides so much, the clinic supervisor who has worked for the charity for 25 years and himself now suffers from diabetes, said it was because it provides a better service than government hospitals.

They know staff here really value them and they won’t have to queue for hours to be seen by a doctor or to collect medicines.

It may not be an easy place to work, particularly when temperatures rise to 42oC, but you couldn’t wish for a more dedicated or compassionate team on your side when you are sick.


I Witness- No 10 School - nourishing young minds and bodies

Spend a morning at Calcutta Rescue’s No 10 School and you might well conclude that the most important thing on the curriculum is food.

And you would be right.

It is hard to believe, but between 10am and 1pm each weekday 330 children will eat a hot main meal in the covered central courtyard, which measures no more than 15ft by 15ft.

That is on top of a nutritious breakfast of chattu, a kind of lentil porridge, and rosogolla, a sweet made from cottage cheese, and banana.

And anyone who is underweight will get additional special supplements, such as Complan and buttered biscuits.

Because the fact is that without the energy this food provides these children have not got a hope of making the most of their lessons in Bengali, maths, science, Hindi, English, computing.

Food is serious business here.

You just have to look at the faces of the 35 youngsters perched on low plastic stools eating from large shiny stainless steel plates.

They sit in silence, concentrating on scooping up the rice, dal and vegetables in their little hands and popping it in their mouths.

When several have finished the cook goes round and dollops out more from a saucepan she fills from two huge vats in the corner.

The children eat everything, licking their hands at the end and holding the plates up to their mouths to drink any remaining juice. Hardly a grain of rice is wasted.

For many, this is the only proper meal they will have today.

As soon as one group has finished eating the stools are stacked, the floor swept, and then the stools are replaced for the next sitting - a process which takes less than 5 minutes.

No 10 is an extraordinarily efficient machine - it has to be.

Although the school is spread over three floors, the space is actually very limited and the rooms are very small. The only decent-sized spaces are the courtyard, used almost continuously as a canteen/food preparation area, and a roof terrace.

And the number of youngsters using it each day is huge - more than 400 pupils who spend most of the day in formal schools and 60 little ones, aged 4 and 5, who are being prepared to enter formal schooling.

Groups of youngsters are constantly arriving and leaving, eating, studying, collecting forms and visiting the sick room - where all their medical needs, from innoculations to serious health conditions, are monitored and treated.

No wonder the green paint on the staircase rail has been largely worn away, as has much of the paint on the walls.

Peer in at any of the classroom doors and you will see 15 or so children sitting on the floor, workbooks open, listening to one of the seven teachers.

In addition to the usual subjects, pupils here benefit from art, dance, and drama and there is a computer room where everyone gets around an hour of tuition each week. Their instructor, who holds a masters degree in computing, has a special reason for being so enthusiastic about his job. He was a pupil here himself only a few years ago - and is a shining example to the rising generation.

The chidren look smart in a wide variety of uniforms (paid for by Calcutta Rescue, as are shoes, schoolbooks and much more), particularly when you think that they all live in slums where often the whole family share a single room.

They could not be more polite.

And the only thing bigger than their smiles are the rucksacks on their backs crammed with schoolbooks as they head out of the door after several hours here.

Their bodies and their minds have been nourished and nurtured, and they are now ready to make the most of their time at formal school and whatever else life is going to ask of them today.



I Witness- Dakineshwar - where children risk their lives to get clean water 

There is no better way to understand the harsh realities of life in this slum than to go with some of the children to fetch drinking water.

To do this they dodge their way across a busy road carrying an assortment of plastic jars and then abseil 20ft down a steep concrete embankment using ropes knotted together.

Once they have filled their jars from a standpipe they then have to carry them back up the embankment and across the road.

It is dangerous by day, but much more so at night. It comes as no surprise that several have been knocked down by passing Lorries and trucks.

On the other side of the settlement in Dakineshwar, on the northern outskirts of Kolkata, is the main toilet - the railway line. A youngster was struck by a train here just a few weeks ago.

Between the road and the railway line stands the settlement of 182 shacks that Calcutta Rescue started supporting six months ago.

The families here, who mainly arrived from Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, over the past 20 years, still have no electricity, no clean water, and no proper toilets.

But all that is about to finally change.

The charity has already built a concrete box to house an electricity meter and within weeks cables will be strung on bamboo poles and then under the road to bring electricity to their homes.

It will also power a filtered tube well that is going to be sunk next to the current open well and which will at last provide safe drinking water on site.

Look down into the existing well and you see a pool of dirty grey liquid surrounded by mud. You wouldn’t wash your feet in it, but the women here use it to wash vegetables and clean out their plates and cooking pots.

Toilets are also going to be installed with support from another NGO.

It is a Monday but there are lots of friendly children playing in the dirt among the goats, chickens and crows, or standing gazing in wonder at the charity’s mobile clinic and the several dozen people queuing to see the doctor.

They should be in school, learning the lessons they will need if they are to build a better live for themselves. But they aren’t.

Which is why Calcutta Rescue plans to build a small school here for them, on an area of hardstanding currently covered by sacks of rubbish.

Hardly any of the kids had been immunised when the charity arrived last year, but now 75 per cent have been given the jabs that will keep them safe.

Under the awning behind the ambulance a staff member is holding up a folder illustrating a selection of vegetables, and telling the waiting patients what they should feed their children to prevent the damage Vitamin A deficiency can do to their eyes.

She asks them if their children find it hard to see at night - a good indicator of Vitamin A deficiency.

An elderly lady wearing dark glasses had an operation on her cataracts a few weeks ago organised by the CR team and says here sight is a lot better now.

Down below, in the settlement, health workers are going door to door, ensuring patients with conditions such as TB are taking their medicine, and that people people who need treatment today get to see the doctor.

Mums carrying tiny babies on their hips, leave the ambulance carrying medicine, soap, food supplements and maybe a blanket or a dress.

Up until now parents here have relied on the amulets tied with string around their children’s necks and arms to protect them.

But now, thanks to the holistic work of Calcutta Rescue, these people will no longer be denied the basic services that the rest of us take for granted and the safety and security that they bring.



I Witness- Persistence pay off at Calcutta Rescue's Street Medicine programme

Within 10 minutes of arriving at the huge slum at Canal West, a line of health education photos have been slung between nearby poles, an awning has been erected at the rear of the ambulance and the first patients are sitting in its shade on a wooden bench waiting to see the doctor.

Calcutta Rescue’s street medicine programme is open for business.

We are expected. Several team members were here yesterday registering dozens of new patients and letting people know the ambulance was coming today.

A gaggle of barefooted children gather round excitedly, holding up their fingers, making photo gestures, and trying to get the attention of the clinic team who are setting up.

Dr Jack arrives and tears out pages from an old picture calendar - a tiger, a whale, an elephant - which he gives to them to their evident delight, before he turns to the serious business of checking patients are getting the best possible care.

First up is a man with TB, identifiable by his green face mask. He is here so the team can check he is continuing to take the powerful combination of drugs that will free him from the disease when the course ends in three months time.

Next is a woman deliberately injured by her husband using lighted kerosine. The doctor checks how her burns are healing and, as she has spent money buying medicinal ointment, the team will reimburse her for that.

Space is cleared for a cycle cart which contains an elderly man with one leg in plaster. It was broken when he was struck by a motorbike and the doctor checks his blood pressure and how well his leg is recovering.

The next woman to be seen is well known and liked by the team. They identified that she was suffering from leprosy a year ago and after nine months of treatment she is now clear of the disease.

She has six daughters, three of them with her today, the eldest particularly cheeky, and having decided that was enough children she had a tubal ligature last week with support from Calcutta Rescue.

The doctor checks that she has no sign of fever.

A mum is carrying her 3 year old daughter, naked save for lucky amulets tied round her neck, arms and waist, who has lumps on her skin and itching, which could well be scabies.

It is said 20,000 people live here, crammed into tiny, two storey huts stretching for 2km along both banks of a stagnant  canal - but nobody really knows.

Many are refugees from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh drawn here by the hope of earning enough money to feed their families.

Here they live in great squalor, often earning a pittance by sorting through huge bags of filthy rubbish - paper, glass, plastic bags -  which they collect around the city and then sell on for recycling.

As economic refugees they don’t have legal status, they don’t know where to go to get medical support when they need it, and even if they did they often can’t spare the time from earning money for the next meal.

These people are the very definition of hard-to-reach - which is why Calcutta Rescue brings the clinic to them.


And conditions here are about as polluted and unsanitary as anywhere on the planet.

The air itself is grey with car fumes and woodsmoke rising from the small clay ovens outside the shacks.  The gutter oozes with semi-solid putrid waste above which dozens of flies are buzzing. A fetid stink rises from the canal just a few metres away. No wonder so many patients have respiratory problems.

And every surface from the pavement, to the people to the filthy tarpaulins covering the shacks is covered in a layer of grime.  But things are improving. Just a few hundred yards from where the ambulance is parked there are toilets and a pump which was officially opened in November 2016, following years of lobbying by Calcutta Rescue.

The charity has been coming here every week for the past eight years (just one of 14 slums where it is currently working), such is the demand. Almost every child is now immunised too. Scores of people have been identified by the team with TB and leprosy and have been cured.

Babies are thriving thanks to the pre and post natal care it provides.

This is slow, difficult, physically challenging work.

Even in February the temperature under the awning nudges 90oC. What it must be like for the team working out here in the sweltering heat of high summer, and the torrential monsoon rains, doesn’t bear thinking about.

But persistence is the key to their success - coming here week after week, making sure each patient is followed up and ensuring those with serious conditions take their drugs meticulously week-in, week-out, until they are finally cured


I Witness- Calcutta Rescue's disability project - where special is normal

The smiles say it all.

You would never think there was so much fun to be had on a hot, dusty field with a small bag of potatoes.

But the youngsters of Calcutta Rescue’s disability project, getting ready for their forthcoming sports day, are clearly having a brilliant time.

Supported by their mums they are lined up behind the start line waiting for the handkerchief to drop.

When it does they run forward excitedly picking up the trail of potatoes on the ground in front of them as fast as they can on their way to the finish line.

The mums and staff clap and the kids beam with happiness.

Born into poverty in India is challenging enough, being born into poverty and with a disability takes that challenge to a whole new level - given the prejudice you face and the lack of all the support services we take for granted in the West.

Which is why CR’s disability project is such an amazing lifeline for the 140 young people it helps, and their hard-pressed parents.

These lucky youngsters, who have cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism and a range of other conditions, get the professional support they need.

Just as important, they get a chance to be themselves in a safe and totally supportive environment where they are valued as individuals.


Four days a week they arrive at the project in leafy Belgachia, to the north of the city, with their mums to take part in art therapy, special dance classes, speech therapy, physical therapy…

Doctors look after their medical needs and the disability coordinator and her assistant, supported by a range of experts, look after everything else.

Now a special school, with two qualified special educational needs instructors, has been started which runs there one day a week for around 35 youngsters.

And older children assessed as having the capacity are encouraged to do vocational training. Many mums worry about how their beloved children will survive when they are no longer around to look after them.

Boys and girls can start coming at the age of two and there is no fixed upper age. So one man is still coming along at the age of 27 and staffs are happy to continue to support him.

After the sports trial, the kids sit in the shade with their parents and eat tiffin - bread, a boiled egg and bananas, handed out by the disability assistant.

Building up their confidence is key for the project coordinator who is sitting on the ground chatting to some mums.

One relates how when her son first came here eight years ago he was seriously ill. Today he is a healthy, sociable boy who loves playing above all.

Another boy in a pink shirt, about six, dances around holding a piece of bread over his head triumphantly.

Other children, some barefoot, chase round after eachother.

The atmosphere is relaxed and happy.

It all feels quite normal which, under the circumstances, is actually pretty special.


I Witness - Not your average charity office (but this isn't your average charity)

You can tell a lot about a charity from its head office.

Often they are chosen to impress and are located on a high street in an up-market location. There may be a shiny brass name plate, a swanky reception area, comfortable leather seats and a water cooler to impress and pamper visitors.

All this may be useful, but it is rarely necessary and always comes at a considerable price.

Calcutta Rescue’s offices in Collin Street create a very different impression.

Collin Street is more meat market than up-market, though lots of other things are sold there too.

And CRs offices are not even on the street, but tucked away down a narrow lane that runs off it (which can be confusing for people visiting for the first time).

There is no brass plaque marking its location, in fact there is no sign of it at all at street level, just an open door leading onto an uninviting staircase.

You have to climb four floors to locate the offices, up stairs that can’t have been painted in the past decade with walls heavily stained with dirt and streaks of betel juice.

Even when you reach the right floor there is no nameplate, reception desk, receptionist, waiting area, water cooler...

There are just a pair of brown painted doors and, behind them, a series of small, dingy offices where the CR management team are hard at work.

The mismatched, heavily-worn, office furniture would probably be rejected by your local charity shop as unsaleable, and the staffs are tapping away on clunky-old style computers.

The chief executive’s office, which he shares with his deputy, is just the same. No fancy frills, no special treatment.

In the punishing 40oC heat of mid-summer Kolkata the offices must be stifling.

Anyone who visits CR’s HQ will leave with the certain conviction that this is a charity determined not to waste a single unnecessary rupee of hard-earned donations on administrative costs.

Which is why CR was last year awarded a Platinum Award by Guidestar India for outstanding transparency and accountability, its highest award and one which only a tiny number of charities have so far achieved.

For the team in Collin Street it is all about the work done for the poorest of the poor out at its clinics and outreach programmes, its schools, its handicraft and arsenic filtration programmes.

Although the offices themselves redefine drab, the commitment and enthusiasm of the CR staff light up those offices in a way that no amount of posh lighting, tasteful paint and expensive carpets ever could.