Problems with funding have forced Freedom Foundation to scale down its operations
When Ashok Rau and his friend Karl Sequeira set out to start a de-addiction centre in 1990, they started in the spare bedroom of his house. “I sold my music system and prized collection of cassettes to fund it, and in those days I was the doctor, the psychotherapist, and even the cook,” says Ashok. Two years later, Freedom Foundation was launched in 1992, “partly for academic reasons and partly for personal ones,” says Ashok, who explains that having people close to him suffer from addiction and HIV spurred the direction that the foundation was to take.
Freedom Foundation began by helping alcoholics and drug addicts overcome their addiction. The foundation’s success at treating people for alcoholism and substance abuse is largely due to its approach, says Ashok. “When I came back to India in the ’80s after studying in the U.S., I found the issue of addiction grossly misunderstood.” The mechanism to address this was restricted to either treating addiction solely as a medical problem, involving detoxifying patients at a hospital, or treating it as a psychiatric problem, often classifying patients as mentally insane, he says.
“[Karl and I] were very careful not to import a strategy,” Ashok says: at Freedom Foundation, the emphasis is on quality of life, not abstinence. Addiction is seen as a disease such as, say, diabetes; a primary influence that is not caused by other factors. “That approach has tremendous impact in terms of meeting our objectives,” says Ashok, who also emphasises that addiction knows no barriers of caste or social status, and hence the foundation began to provide free treatment to those who couldn’t afford it. In search of space to treat patients from all backgrounds, they moved to their current location in Hennur in 1994.
Focus on HIV
At the same time, Ashok says he was aware that in India “there was just nothing happening on HIV.” He noticed that people with alcohol and drug addictions were at higher risk of contracting HIV, and that one of the people he was treating displayed symptoms of HIV. At the time, however, there wasn’t even a place in Bangalore to which his patient could be sent for testing. The fear and stigma attached to HIV was “so profound”, says Ashok, that he realised it would soon prove to be a big problem in India. What he wanted to do was set up a “guilt-free, shame-free, safe environment” in which people with HIV could live and experience companionship.
In the last two decades, Freedom Foundation has grown to provide one of the most well-known of India’s de-addiction programmes, and offers extensive care and support to adults and children living with HIV/AIDS. From a tiny organisation operating out of a house, the foundation expanded its presence to four States, looking beyond urban centres to set up offices in smaller towns such as Bagalkot and Guntur.
In addition to providing anti retroviral drugs for free or at subsidised rates to people living with HIV, the foundation also cares for orphaned or abandoned children with HIV, and works to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child.
However, the going has never been easy, says Ashok. Karl Sequeira passed away after a heart attack in 2004, and two years ago, funding dried up after the global slump. “We’ve had to scale down our activities,” Ashok admits, adding that soon, the only hubs the foundation will run will be in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Free treatment for addiction for the poor has also stopped.
Nevertheless, Ashok still has plans for the foundation. With negative attitudes to substance abuse largely unchanged over the years, he says women alcoholics have had it particularly bad. “Ten years ago, women who had a problem with addiction were a lost cause,” he says, largely because Indian society required them to remain closet alcoholics. “Today, we do get referrals, but there is still no specialised facility in the country to address the unique needs of women in India,” and this is where he hopes to make a difference.
(Freedom Foundation is at 180, Hennur Cross. Visit www.thefreedomfoundation.org or call 25440134.)