Meet a doctor in Bihar who powers his hospital and home with solar energy.
Gaya is a name that is synonymous with enlightenment. Just 11 km from this city, the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Ironically, Gaya today remains enveloped in darkness. The drains are overflowing, buildings are being washed away and the electricity poles have literally bent under the burden of high expectations. And Gaya often goes without electricity for 18 hours a day. It is in this dark, rusting city that I found the illuminating story of Dr Rudra Kumar Varma.
At first look, Varma seems to be in his 60s. Then I find he is actually 80. Dr. Varma runs the oldest private hospital in Gaya. Born in Agra to an English professor, Varma completed his MBBS from Agra, MS from Manipal and practised medicine in Karnataka before moving to the U.K. for nearly a decade. But, like the Buddha, Varma too renounced his comfortable life to work for society. “One day, while watching the BBC,” he says, “I saw heart-wrenching images from the severe drought that hit Bihar in 1967.” Disturbed by what he saw, a year later, he left his lucrative job and decided to work in Gaya.
Starting in a five-room setup, Varma says he had big plans of improving healthcare in this small town but soon realised that his hospital itself was critically ill. “There was virtually no electricity. Every time I got ready for an operation, the lights would go off,” he says. “There were only two options: either wait for the electricity to come back while the patient cried in pain or go ahead using candles or kerosene lamp. And most of the time, I was out of option 1.”
To save lives, Varma knew he needed light and he tried everything to make sure it was available. He used his car batteries and head lamps in a makeshift arrangement but that didn’t work. He then crossed the border to Nepal and imported a diesel generator, as they were not available in India. “I hated the generator for the noise it made, the pollution and its vibrations,” says the octogenarian.
Though not happy, Varma says he was making things work. But it all went for a toss when, one day, the Bihar State Electricity Board cut off his supply after an issue over his electricity bill. “They forged a bill showing 23kVA load factor when I was using only 6kVA. When I argued with them, they threatened me,” says the doctor as he shows the complaint letters he shot off to the state body and consumer forum.
To get back his electricity supply, which was erratic at best, Varma greased all palms that came his way. But finally he took matters into his own hands. In 2009, he bought a solar inverter for Rs 7.5 lakh and his hospital was lit again. “Though it only powered the operation theatre and a few machines, I knew I had found light,” he says. Gradually he began upgrading his hospital and today more than 100 solar panels gleam in the summer sun atop his three-storeyed hospital. From ultrasound to x-ray machines, pathology lab to operation theatre, lights and fans to air-conditioners, the entire hospital is powered by solar energy. “The bill issue has still not been resolved and every time the electricity board officials come to my hospital for a check, they frown when they see it running without their help,” laughs Varma.
As it turned out, solar energy is just what the doctor needed. He has been able to get improved medical equipment into his hospital, as he no longer has to worry about voltage fluctuations. From 40 patients a month, Varma today attends to nearly 300. “The stable electricity supply has given me the confidence to perform better surgeries and treat people on time,” he explains. “
For the patients too, Varma’s solar experiment has proved to be a blessing. “Earlier, to see a doctor meant spending an entire day waiting and running around,” says Manoj Mishra. “We would visit the doctor and, god forbid, if he wanted an X-ray or an ultrasound, we would run to the diagnostic centre and wait there till the electricity came. But here everything is done in the same place and we don’t have to wait in long queues anymore.”
What Varma is doing in Gaya is running more than just a hospital. In Bihar — where, according to the Planning Commission’s report last year, doctors are in short supply and primary healthcare is lacking, people from far-flung areas have to go to Patna for treatment of even minor diseases — doctors like Varma are filling this critical gap by providing quality healthcare.
Unfortunately, the electricity board, rather than reward his endeavour, created a hostile environment. But the 80-year-old doctor didn’t pack up and move to a more favourable location. Instead, he took charge of his problems and found a solution. “People read Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana and all they pick up from there is dependency. We wait for god to come and help us,” he grieves, urging people to change their thought-process. “Why have we come to a situation where we have to beg and fight with the government to give us electricity and water? When science enables us to produce our own electricity, why are we still sticking to coal?”
He got one of his doctor friends to put up solar panels on his clinic and bore the cost. “Our power requirements are not the same every day. Today we want a little; tomorrow it may be more. With solar power, you can expand according to your needs and it is all in your control,” says Varma. He now plans to setup air conditioners in all the patients’ rooms and buy electronic cleaning equipment for the hospital.
But how much has this energy transition at home and hospital together cost him? Varma refuses to give a number. “For me, solar energy is like an addiction. People splurge on cars, alcohol, drugs. I like to spend on solar energy. So I don’t think about the cost.”
Like human beings, nature too is the sum total of good and bad. But we must, like Varma, learn to harness the good and discard the bad. When in the rest of the country, the sun and the heat are taking away lives, here in Gaya, a doctor is using the same energy to save lives.