Dr. Shobha Arole's movement has come a long way. Today, she has entire villages thanking her for making them self-reliant.

Her accent does not match her surroundings or her work. Listen to her talk on the phone or at a seminar, and you hear a definite American twang in her words. And, her clipped manner of speech, and passionate response to questions about her work, speak of a more complex upbringing.

As a student at Woodstock Christian International School in Mussoorie, Shobha had no idea where life was destined to lead her. Her school was a far cry from where her home was. Her parents, Dr. Raj Arole and Dr. Mabel Arole, had just returned from America, fired by an idea that they had seen being implemented by Professor Carl Taylor. How the Aroles managed to set up the Indian version of comprehensive rural health development in an arid village in Maharastra, called Jamkhed, is quite another story, but as a school girl, Shobha knew that her parents lived and worked in the back of beyond in a small village, and they wanted her to get a good education. So, there she was imbibing international ideas and preparing herself for whatever role she wanted to play on the stage of life.

Not surprisingly though, Shobha found herself part of a small group that hiked into the nearby mountains, and undertook medical missions. Perhaps her wanderings in the villages in the company of her parents when she went home in the holidays, once in nine months, rooted the idea in her mind. “These medical hikes,” Shobha says, “would see us visiting small tribal villages and giving medicines to help basic ailments.”

Own path

The efficacy of these visits and the succour they provided helped her make up her mind. She would be a doctor too, and work in the Himalayas. “My parents never ever suggested I take up medicine, or work in their project,” she says, “they let me choose my own path.” Her path led her back to the Himalayas, armed with a medical degree from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, where her parents had also studied. Shobha went back to Woodstock as school doctor on an honorary basis, and spent much of her time visiting tribal villages to give them the advanced medical help that she now possessed knowledge of.

“We would walk 10 km a day among the tribals, and talk to the women about self help and self empowerment,” she explains. All this while she worked in a 60-bed hospital to gain hands-on experience.

Three years later, her path led her to the villages in remote parts of Bihar and Eastern UP, where she felt there was need for someone like her; someone who could help improve the quality of health of the villagers in these regions.

Her self initiated empowerment movement continued, even as she worked in hospitals honing her skills as a doctor in many disciplines of medicine and surgery. “It was then that I realised the importance of holistic health care, of the typical model that my parents had created; of curative care initiatives involving the villagers, mobile clinics and a hospital backup,” she says.

She thought she would go back to the mountains and try and establish a comprehensive movement for health care there. But it was not quite what happened. The learning process continued. Shobha armed herself with a battery of diplomas and learnt everything that she would need to be able to have an all-round approach to the problems she would encounter among socially deprived tribals. Her studies would later also take her to Antwerp, and Glasgow for specialisations.

By 1989, she was back to where she belonged. Preparing herself to add to the effort her parents had started, knowing there would be need for them to have someone they could pass on the baton of responsibility to.

“I started off as a medical officer,” Shobha says, recounting the trajectory of her growth at the CRHP, (Comprehensive Rural Health Project) in Jamkhed. Over the years, Shobha slowly had to take on increasing responsibility at CHRP. Her father was getting old and when her mother died in 1999, her support became all the more vital to keep the project from fading away. The villagers were getting self reliant, but there was other work to be done. The CRHP reaches out to 300 villages now and is amazingly successful in dealing with issues that still plague many parts of India, including maternal mortality and infant mortality. The knowledge had to be shared to benefit others. The Aroles could now shift their focus on to spreading the message of comprehensive rural health development.

By 1990, to her duties as hospital chief administrator, doctor, motivator and guiding force, human resources person and finance manager (they had to find ways to get effective medical care at affordable rates to the poor) Shobha had added “trainer” since she took on the responsibility of Associate Director. “Many were exposed to Jamkhed, but there was no formal training programme,” she says, adding that in 1994 the Course in Holistic Development was set in motion, with modules on women's empowerment and men's sensitisation to women's health issues; leadership and management; and the internal transformation of the student in a psycho-spiritual way, to inspire him/ her to share with the community he/ she works in. Shobha herself teaches two of the modules.

In 2000 the Schwab Foundation, part of the World Economic Forum nominated Dr. Raj and Shobha Arole as social entrepreneurs in Health. It was part of a larger attempt to close the gap between high business people and those in social development. “I have since then spoken on panels at the WEF, and interacted with business houses on “profit beyond money”, showing them how to disseminate sustainable health knowledge among their workforce universes,” Shobha says.

Today, as director, Shobha not only handles policy matters, and writes books and lectures on the project, but is also finding ways to deal with the new problems that have cropped up in the Jamkhed villages.

Lifestyle changes

“The rural project has been so successful, it has changed lifestyles and increased access to food. But the younger generation has not understood that fast food is not the way to good health. Hypertension and modern western diseases have started cropping up. Besides, we are tackling a type of diabetes that comes from malnourished, inefficient pancreas suddenly being told to handle good food and full stomachs. It's a part of their past coming to haunt them, but it is a real issue,” she says.

The fact that students from the US and Latin America come to visit the CRHP and train at the grassroots level in health techniques is of course invigorating and encouraging. A pointer that the small and tentative initiative started by her father will become a world movement, in time. But it keeps Shobha busy. So busy that all she retains in memory of her life beyond CRHP is the twang in her speech!