Revitalization of Traditional Systems of Medicine in Rural Rajasthan

Not all forms of effective medical treatment come in a pill bottle or are administered through a sharp injection to the forearm. Despite economic and medical progress in urban India, many rural villages and communities lack access to any form of health care. Access to healthcare in rural areas is an issue that the U.S. and India share, and the impressive medical advancements in cities provide a stark contrast to the impoverished, resource-poor villages and towns where people still die from preventable and curable illnesses.

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Overlooking fields in the village of Valli

It is easy to romanticize village life when you watch it fly past you from the car window. Rural Rajasthan, a northern state of India, becomes a blur of rolling hills of green, cows churning fresh dirt and women’s saris blowing in the wind against misty-blue mountains. It is monsoon season, so everything in this usually dry and arid land is made green and growing. Only 3 months ago, Rajasthan was suffering from a severe drought, where 17,000 villages were facing a water crisis that required government support. In this region, droughts affect water and food supply as well as people’s livelihoods since farming and drinking wells are dependent on a constant supply of rainwater. The life of a farmer is very physically demanding as well, resulting in many health complications later in life; oftentimes, farmers are unable to afford treatment at a hospital or private clinic due to their insufficiently small income. Last year, due to weather-related crop loss, 11 farmers committed suicide in 45 days, a small reflection of the thousands of farmer suicides that occur in India every year.

In 1989, 15 children in a rural Rajasthan village died from Diphtheria, a highly infectious nose and throat infection that is easily preventable and curable. Jagran Jan Vikas Samiti (JJVS), the NGO that I currently work at through the GESI program, was alarmed by this horrible tragedy and the lack of mobilization by the government to prevent or control it.

It is difficult to provide a successful and sustainable healthcare delivery system for the marginalized of any community, and even more so in rural areas. Healthcare tends to be located in urban and more affluent towns and cities, as healthcare providers tend to set up clinics in areas of social mobility and development where their patients are able to pay for their services, and the doctors have access to more resources and better accommodations. Indian government programs providing healthcare and other necessary services to rural areas have so far been lacking in resources and man-power, and the government has a concerning lack of interest in the welfare of the rural poor. Of the public government clinics that exist in Rajasthan, 56% of them are absent of any health care provider. Often, the closest biomedical, or allopathic, care is hours away by bus, which can become expensive, inconvenient and dangerous in the case of medical emergencies.

Traditional healers, unnoticed and unrecognized, have been treating common illness in rural villages for hundreds of years, passing down knowledge of medicinal plants from generation to generation. Allopathic medicine from a pharmacy or hospital is inaccessible and expensive – medicinal plants, however, grow easily in rural forests and gardens. JJVS, after realizing the dangerous lack of access to healthcare and unjust lack of interest in rural village welfare, has partnered with these traditional healers to improve the health of rural Rajasthan. Titling them as “Gunis”, JJVS identifies, trains, and provides resources to Gunis by widening their knowledge base of medicinal plants and human physiology, teaching them new techniques in Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of holistic and natural healing, and Myotherapy, a manual therapy that deals with the musculoskeletal system, and building medicinal gardens and Guni treatment centers.

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Guni Roti Bai treating an ear infection with local medicinal plant

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Guni Pratapi Bai setting a broken foot

While collecting Guni Life Histories for my internship with JJVS, I have been able to observe Gunis at work. I was able to watch Pratapi Bai, a renowned female Guni and bone-setter, massage a broken foot back into place with her strong and weathered hands.

These competent healers have a lifetime of knowledge that is now complemented by JJVS resources and trainings and shared with the wider community. By providing safe, affordable and effective care, Gunis, trusted local healers, have the potential to change the health of rural Rajasthan for the better. Through talking with these Gunis, I have gained a new appreciation for what it means to be a healer and the benefits of Ayurveda and Naturopathic medicine in this rural context.

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