BY BRIG. KESHAV CHANDRA : ॐ सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः,सर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः (Om, may all become happy, may all be free from illness) goes the ancient mantra from Upanishada. WHO, too, had given a similar call “Health for All” at its conference in Alma Ata in 1978. Pious goals, indeed, but that is just what they have remained all these years resulting in unmitigated and great suffering to the underprivileged sections of society. It is in this scenario that work being done by Dr Brig.ML Kataria stands out like the proverbial silver lining.
Known variously and affectionately as “Saint of the Slums”, “Messiah of the Poor”, “A One Man Army” or simply as “Daakdar Sahib”, Brig. Kataria, after a successful professional career, decided to not live on his laurels but, instead, to repay society for what it had given him. The vehicle he chose for ‘repayment’ was provision of medical services to those who needed them the most: poor people living in villages and urban slums. He became a social worker as to the manner born and set up two NGOs – BCS Kataria Foundation and Healthcare India of which he is Chairman-cum-Managing Director. These NGOs, working through Chandigarh Rural Health Care Mission (CRHCM), have set up 27 polyclinics and diagnostic centres some of them with sophisticated equipment not available even in cities. His dedication, commitment and zeal have been infectious and over 15 doctors from different specialities have flocked to him as have 20 technicians and over 100 social workers.
Such an NGO needs huge funds but CRHCM, even though doing what Government ought to be doing, has never sought any grants. So where does the money come from? Most of the funding comes from the Foundation; for the rest there are individual philanthropists, business houses and industrialists more than willing to donate for a really worthy cause. Someone donated an X-ray machine, someone else bought a dental chair and a third person pledged all her estate, after death, to the Mission.
He still attends one or two of his clinics every day of the week round the year, rain or shine, blistering heat or freezing cold and never returns until he has seen the last patient. Unlike most other doctors, he doesn’t have a finger impatiently hovering over a bell: he encourages the patient to talk as long as he wishes to for, he says, being a patient listener is itself a therapy. So, what is it that keeps the worthy doctor, in his 96th (his real age, though on paper he is two years younger) ticking? Brig Kataria attributes it to Army discipline, a Spartan life and the unflinching support from his wife, Dr Mrs Sharda Kataria.
Not many may know that Brig. Kataria, though commissioned as an Army doctor in 1943, was transferred to Army Service Corps after the War. He served with distinction and rose to the rank of Brigadier but his first love remained medicine so whenever he had an opportunity he volunteered to work in the local hospitals in spare time – an offer readily accepted due to chronic shortage of doctors in the Army. Not only that. Ever a seeker after knowledge, he grasped every opportunity to hone his existing skills and acquire new ones which is why he must, arguably, be the most learned man in the region if not the entire country. His qualifications span a wide range of diverse disciplines – law, management and literature besides four specialisations in medical subjects. Truly, learning is a life-long process!
Such a person, obsessed with his socio-medical work must be a cranky, old bore! Wrong, for he has a prodigious memory and ready wit, he also has a huge collection of Urdu poetry with couplets for every occasion. He is a spell-binding speaker and a prolific writer. His articles appear regularly in different ’papers and magazines including our Souvenir. The writing part is really a team work: Brig Kataria dictates and Sharda Ji types on the computer.
Vayoshreshtha Samman is only the latest of a dozen odd awards, including the prestigious ‘Dr BC Roy Award for Professional Excellence in Social Service of Ailing Humanity’, that have been conferred on him. No wonder he is a role model for us who get our inspiration and energy from him. We hope and pray that he will live long to serve humanity and remain a beacon light to us.