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Helping others is bliss for Indian Magsaysay winner

Thousands of mentally ill people living rough on India's streets have been reunited with their families

Priscilla Pinto, Pune

Priscilla Pinto, Pune

Updated: December 26, 2018 05:22 AM GMT
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Helping others is bliss for Indian Magsaysay winner

Magsaysay winner Bharat Vatwani and wife Smitha in their office. (Photo by Priscilla Pinto/

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Santosh's family believed he was dead.

Three months after the 25-year-old mentally ill man disappeared, in Nanded city of India's Maharashtra state, a garlanded picture of him hung on the front of their home.

So, when he suddenly arrived, there was quite a commotion.

His elderly parents cried with joy and Santosh's 20-year-old wife prayed loudly to give thanks.

Mumbai Psychiatrist Bharat Vatwani, a winner this year of a Magsaysay Award, recalls that the young woman changed from the white dress of a widow into a colorful sari and applied a 'bindi' dot, worn by married women, to her forehead.

A police patrol team found Santosh, not his real name, wandering on a Mumbai street and took him to Vatwani's 'Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation' in Karjat, on the outskirts of the city.

He is one of the more than 7,000 mentally-ill people from the streets that Vatwani, his psychiatrist wife Smitha and their team have reunited with families, or cared for, across the nation during the past three decades.

So far this year, more than 480 people had been helped in this way, 60-year-old Vatwani told

The foundation, billed as the only one of its kind, provides treatment, custodial care and rehabilitation.

"We see ourselves in those patients," Vatwani confided when speaking about the inspiration for his work.

"But for the grace of a God above, I could have been on the streets," he said.

Not all wandering mentally ill people are homeless poor, he said, noting that one person under his care was a chartered accountant originally from a wealthy neighbourhood.


Award takes the cause out of closet

Vatwani's efforts were conferred with the prestigious 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, which he will accept at a ceremony in the capital of the Philippines, Manila, on Aug. 31.

Vatwani said the resulting publicity will help bring the cause of the wandering mentally ill "out of the closet" in India and further afield

The award was established in 1957 in memory of former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay.

The prize of US$30,000 is to be used by Vatwani to further his cause.  

"Schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by delusions and hallucinations and hearing of voices, affects roughly one million Indians every year," Vatwani said.

However, many people remain unaware of the need for ongoing care and medication.

He said 98 percent of cases he dealt with resulted in people with mental illnesses being successfully reunited with their families.

"This is made possible because we have a great team of social workers from different parts of the country who manage to connect with the patient, and help trace the family," Vatwani said.

Chance encounter

Vatwani's work began through a chance encounter with a schizophrenic man 30 years ago.

While he and wife were dining at a restaurant in Mumbai, they saw a thin, unkempt man on the street.

"His behavior and mannerisms left us in no doubt that he had schizophrenia," Vatwani said.

"As we watched him, he picked up an empty coconut shell from the road and scooped out some gutter water with it to drink."

After talking to the man, the couple took him to their clinic to be washed and treated.

Following a couple of months of treatment, he was united with his family in Andhra Pradesh of southern India.

Vatwani's spontaneous empathy was not surprising since he knew what poverty was like.

He lost his father when he was barely 12.

He and siblings were forced to do odd jobs, such as peddling books door-to-door.

Struggling as a self-supporting student, Vatwani successfully completed his studies in psychiatry in Mumbai.

The satisfaction from helping the schizophrenic man outside the restaurant prompted the couple to take other mentally-ill street dwellers to their private clinic in Mumbai. And they started the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation in 1988.

The two-room foundation drew public attention when it rescued and treated a well-known art professor suffering from schizophrenia, who was wandering on Mumbai's roads for more than two years. 

Vatwani also fought for him to get his job back.

This triggered an overwhelming response from art students, who organized an art exhibition that raised more than US$22,000 for Vatwani's project.

The money helped him start a 20-bed rehabilitation centre in the suburb of Dahisar.

However, locals took court action to block the center, claiming members of 'normal society' would be disturbed

"We were on the verge of giving up our work," Vatwani said.

"Then the Mumbai High Court ruled in our favor, saying the mentally ill deserve to be a part of society and could not be removed."

In 2006, with the help of private donors, volunteer professionals and social workers, the Vatwanis moved to a larger, 120-patient facility in Karjat outside Mumbai, with five buildings on a 6.5-acre site.

Here, the couple strengthened their three-phase program consisting of the rescue and treatment of mentally-ill street dwellers, reuniting patients with their families and promoting community awareness on mental health issues.

The Karjat center currently accommodates 81 men and 46 women who are cared by 36 paid staff, including nine nurses, two doctors and two ambulance drivers.

"We do what we do because it gives us what Hindus call Nirvana," Vatwani said.

"It means internal bliss."

This article was first published 23. 8. 2018.

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