JAIPUR, India – Tucked away in a small corner of arid, northwestern India lies the medieval city of Jaipur: an oasis town located at the edge of one of India’s hottest regions, the Thar Desert.
Not far from the walls of the old city, a dusty, tall white building rises above a simple mud-packed courtyard flanked by exotic trees. Inside, plaster dust, sparks and flakes of high-strength polymers whiz through the air to the rhythmic clanging of machine drills and industrial mixing vats.
Workers who operate in a flourish of white lab coats slice through the thick heat around them to sculpt, fit and shave sheets of plastic and plaster of Paris into humanlike limbs that literally help amputees get back on their feet.
In a developing nation where economic opportunity is limited below the looming class divide, medical treatments are wildly expensive. People living with disabilities are often stigmatized. Deependra Raj Mehta leads a group of intrepid men and women working to change that.
These social shakers, many of whom are fitted with Jaipur Foot prosthetics themselves, make up the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, or Jaipur Foot for short. Using rudimentary homemade tools, Jaipur Foot, which has been in operation for 43 years, provides prosthetic limbs, calipers and other mobility devices to millions of individuals around the world, giving them back their ability to walk, squat, sit, run, climb, bike and swim. And it’s all free.
“It is a health care model based upon compassion where the critical factor is the deed, not the payment,” said Mehta, adding that the joy he receives from his work has a value and worth that is “unlimited and priceless.”
Before founding Jaipur Foot, Mehta was a chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (his country’s equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission). In 1975, he was seriously injured in a traffic accident. During his recovery, Mehta’s physicians told him that he almost required an amputation.
After recovering and leaving the hospital, he discussed his experiences with colleagues. Together they pondered the plight of amputees who could not afford to receive prosthetic devices and wished to help them. And so, the visionary concept was born.
On a typical day, patients like 8-year-old Asuza sit and wait for fittings beneath a large, black plaque of a generous donor. A technician who is making Asuza’s limb gets the proper-sized foot, plastic sheets, shoes and strap from the storage room for a child of her age. The new prosthetic foot will allow her to begin a new walk of life.
Jaipur Foot, which works in partnership with the United Nations, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Indian Space Research Organization and other world-renowned NGOs, operates on a modest annual budget of $4 million.
Ninety percent of patients live beneath the poverty line. The organization has transformed the lives of over 1.5 million people worldwide.
Although Mehta has often been urged by his financial supporters to charge a minimal amount to his patients, he wholeheartedly refuses, stating that that would be against the institution’s values. Driven by his believe that a friend is one who helps, Mehta asks, “Since all beings are one’s friend, if a being is in need and you do not aid them, then what kind of friend are you?”