Dr. Unni Karunakara of Doctors Without Borders tells Bhumika K. what his nearly-three months of cycling all over India has shown him about his country. He is in Bangalore this weekend

Pedalling his way through many different towns and villages of India since October 2013, Dr. Unni Krishnan Karunakara has seen many facets of India — people driving luxury cars worth lakhs on the highways roll down windows and throw out plastic bottles, young children walking to school all nattily dressed in uniforms with ties, but with no shoes on their feet, labourers picking coffee or cutting sugarcane with no access to doctors.

Dr. Unni completed a three-year term as International President of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in October 2013. MSF is an international medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters in around 70 countries.

In an effort to take his work further, spark conversations with the general public, medical students, and health care providers on health, health care, and humanitarian action, he set out on this journey, called UnniCycles.

It had always been his dream — of cycling across India. Now, he is traversing 5,000 kilometres through 10 states, beginning in Kashmir and ending in Kerala. He is currently travelling through Karnataka. And it’s a place he’s fairly familiar with, considering this Alleppey man graduated from The Kasturba Medical College, Manipal.

He’s also studied and trained at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University. The focus of his research has been on the demography of forced migration and the delivery of health care to neglected populations affected by conflict, disasters and epidemics.

“My journey has given me snapshots of the situation on the ground in India…I’m not coming out with any big revelations,” he says, tired from the day’s journey, and resting at a hotel near Malavalli, Karnataka. “But I see many different Indias that co-exist but don’t converse with each other. I see a big disconnect — while we send out cryogenic rockets and missions to Mars — which is all very good, we fail to address life, death and survival issues.”

Altogether, he will stop in 65 cities, towns and villages, such as Chandigarh, Delhi, Jaipur, Soda, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Puducherry. Unni will also have Q&A sessions after film screenings of documentaries featuring MSF’s medical programmes.

Having worked in Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Congo, he tries to analyse the challenges that India’s healthcare system faces. “There is a huge last-mile problem. While the government has ambitious plans, there are entire communities without access. There are personnel issues — doctors appointed rarely show up in remote health centres, but it’s not entirely their fault, because when they do go, there are no drugs available to dispense to patients.” He recounts his recent journey through hilly Coorg, and forested Nagarahole where he found migrant labourers with no access to healthcare. “They don’t even know their rights. But in big towns and cities, there is quite some improvement.”

Another big issue for India is hygiene — both in terms of lack of toilets and access to drinking water. “Everywhere I went, I saw women spending a lot of time at water points, waiting for water.” He also points out how India tends to focus on child and maternal mortality, but for the other half of the country, in urban areas, it is diabetes, hypertension and cancer that need attention.

His cycling journey is a modest ambition to go out and see things, he says. He’s been setting out on his cycle every day at six and by 11 a.m. he manages to clock about 60 kilometres.

Then the heat and traffic slow him down, he says. By 3 in the evening he starts winding up the journey for the day. But not all days go as planned and he ends up cycling till late at night too, sometimes.

What is his takeaway from the journey? “I’m still thinking through all this — there’s a lot of indifference in the country. We are slowly getting good at claiming what we want for ourselves but we are indifferent to others. When I cycle through villages, I meet excited people who want to know what I’m doing. When the adivasis and migrant workers see me, they are blank — I must seem surreal and alien to their reality, almost Bollywoodish…As a humanitarian worker I believe that every individual deserves a life of dignity. But I don’t think we all subscribe to that, but it’s not a uniquely Indian problem,” he stresses.

Unni is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, and on completing this journey on January 31, he heads back to his teaching assignment.

For details on his journey see www.cycleformsf.in

Meet Dr. Unni in Bangalore

On January 12, Sunday, there will be a screening of the BAFTA-nominated film “Fire In The Blood” followed by a question-and-answer session with Dr. Unni Karunakara. The film is an intricate tale of medicine, monopoly and malice. Shot on four continents and featuring Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu, the film is the never-told-before true story of the remarkable coalition which came together to ‘stop the crime of the century’ and save millions of lives by providing access to affordable AIDS drugs. The screening is at the Alliance Française at 6 p.m.. Entry is free.