In 2007, when two acupuncturists — Walter Fischer from Belgium and Jacques Beytrison from Switzerland — visited Mumbai, they realised that there was a lack of access to healthcare in Mumbai’s lower income areas. This inspired Fischer to team up with social worker Ujwala Patil. In 2008, they set up a tiny acupuncture clinic in a Bandra East slum. Since then, they have treated nearly 1,000 patients and at least 20 patients get treated at their clinic.
“The adventure started in May 2007 when I ran a month-long free acupuncture camp in Mumbai. This is where I met Ujwala, who was assisting and translating for our team.
In January 2008, Ujwala and I opened our first slum clinic, in a 7m x 2m room with no water or toilets that Ujwala managed to find for free. In five years, we have opened three clinics in Mumbai and two in Tamil Nadu. We are working with seven Indian acupuncturists, and a 15-member staff,” said Walter. He adds that acupuncture is perfect for treating slum residents, as it is low-cost and free from side effects: “It allows treatment at a low cost (equipment is cheap), is portable and adaptable to different environments and provides an alternative to mainstream treatment.”
Some disorders that have been treated include paralysis, neurological and digestive problems and and gynecological diseases. For most patients, it was the first time that they were treated with acupuncture of which women (who did laborious domestic work) constituted the majority.
Walter admits that initially, the slum-dwellers were puzzled by acupuncture. “I was amazed at how people in Mumbai and Tamil Nadu could trust us and our strange medicine. There was also a lot of word-of-mouth publicity. I believe that in the next decade acupuncture will play a unique role in humanitarian healthcare,” he states.]
Hurdles, what’s that?
Some of the challenges that Barefoot Acupuncturists have faced have been funding-related issues, and in finding acupuncturists. “It is not healthy that such a project is built only on money from Europe. In Mumbai, everybody worries about themselves. People should feel embarrassed that they aren’t helping out; it’s about their country and their people.
People can support us by donating by cheque or cash,” shares Walter. He adds that they have also created a Donor-Patients Program and have converted one room of our social clinic in Bandra into a clinic for people who wish to be treated with acupuncture. In exchange for treatment, people are invited to support them.
They are also open to collaborating with local NGOs that are interested in offering acupuncture within their own structure. “We are ready to train their staff for free and to help them run their clinic,” he says.
Their next plan is to set up more low-cost clinics in the slums of Mumbai and in villages across India. They opened their first rural clinic in 2010 in Tamil Nadu and plan to start another this year. They are also training locals to run the clinic and learn acupuncture so that they can eventually take over the management. They have had visiting acupuncturists from other countries give treatments and teach their staff as well.