Although the Jaipur Foot was invented in 1968, between 1968 and 1975, only 50 or so limbs were fitted. Yet, since 1975, over 300,000 limbs have been fitted. Another 600,000 beneficiaries from all over India and in 18 other countries have received calipers, crutches or tricycles. All given away free, and India has become the world leader in practical, low-cost foot prosthesies.

That journey that took the foot to the people, was triggered by a crash. In 1969, a promising young IAS officer, Devendra Raj Mehta, was seriously injured in a road accident in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. The accident left him with over 40 fractures and he had to spend many many months in bed, and it nearly wrecked an illustrious future career that was to include Deputy Governorship of the Reserve Bank of India, Director Generalship of Foreign Trade and Chairmanship of Securities and Exchange Board of India. After his long stay in bed ended, he was sent for physiotherapy at the Sawai Man Singh Hospital in Jaipur. The Jaipur foot had recently been invented and he saw poor, maimed people throng the hospital in search of it. They lived on the streets and waited their turn for a fitment. During his several visits, Mehta was struck by the huge number that were in need of prostheses.

He recalled that experience later when  he was back in service and risen to be Principal Secretary to Chief Minister Hardeo Joshi of the state of Rajasthan. 1975 was the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, an event which the Indian government wanted all states to celebrate. Ignoring more obvious token gestures, D R Mehta suggested rescuing the Jaipur foot from its neglect and delivering it to the needy. “Where will we do it?” asked the Chief Minister, “we have no funds for buildings and materials.” Mehta suggested using the ramshackle ambulance garages at the SMS Hospital. His proposal was accepted, and so the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti [BMVSS] was born in 1975.

Technology by itself cannot bring about change, however elegant it may be. The Jaipur foot was no doubt a technical winner but in the absence of a process to deliver it in the large numbers necessary it would have remained unavailable to the needy? “The first thing I wanted changed was the approach to visitors,” says Mehta. “It had to become human”. It was common for the disabled to arrive at SMS Hospital and be made to wait days just for registration. “These were usually the poorest of the poor who lost their limbs in the course of their daily labours for employers who took no responsibility. They arrived penniless, starved and were without shelter as they waited for days in hope of being fitted with a limb.”

When BMVSS began operations, the first practice Mehta put in place was that registration must be done on arrival, round the clock. Then the patient would be given food and a bed, and he or she and any accompanying carer would continue to be hosted until the prosthetic limb could be custom fitted. They would then walk out upright in dignity, with return fare in hand. No fee of any kind would ever be collected.

Over the years BMVSS has streamlined and updated its operation, and in the last few years a new facility has been opened in Jaipur about 4 miles south of the original site in the grounds of the SMS Hospital. There is an ordered assembly line approach to fabrication. The amputee’s stump is covered with a knitted sock and a plaster of paris mould is made from which an exact replica of the stump is created. A piece of thick polythene sheet is warmed in an oven and vacuum moulded over this plaster “stump” and this is fitted into the socket at the top of the limb. The limb itself is made by warming high density polyethylene pipe in an oven and stretching it over a mould of a leg of suitable length and size for the patient. The vulcanised rubber Jaipur foot is attached and suitable straps are provided to fasten the limb to the body. Most of the time, fitting takes place on the same day and comfort and facility in its use is achieved in hours.

Adapted from Good News India magazine.

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