Under an old peepul tree on the road leading to Jama Masjid, sits 60-year-old Mohammad Hamid. Every day for over 40 years, from 8 am to 5 pm, he has been fixing broken bones, twisted ankles and arms, and other such injuries. Hamid claims that renowned actress Sushma Seth’s daughter has also been his patient.
Interestingly, he doesn’t have a license to practice medicine.
“If there is pain in someone’s joints or if a finger or hand gets broken, I am able to fix it using my hands only,” Mohammad Hamid claims.
These are skills passed on to Hamid from his father who set up the shop under the same tree soon after independence. As a child, Hamid would sit with him and observe his work. He started tending to patients on his own by the time he was 18.
The man who taught Hamid’s father was one Marhoom Dawood ‘Pahalvan’. Today, his grandson Javed Bandu ‘Pahalvan’ practices the profession out of a small, cramped shop in a narrow lane in the Bara Hindu Rao area, less than five kilometres from where Mohammad Hamid sits.
“I used to sit with my father. Now, my son sits with me,” Javed Bandu says, pointing to his 12-year-old son, who he hopes will continue with this profession. “I earn anywhere between ₹500 to ₹1000 in a day.”
Mohammad Hamid, on the other hand, earns around र15,000 every month after treating anywhere up to 10 people every day. He charges anywhere between ₹100 to ₹300 for his services. A simple bandage would cost about ₹100.
Both Javed Bandu and Mohammad Hamid told me that their business has gone down over the years because most people now prefer going to doctors instead. However, this isn’t true for everyone practising informal medicine without a license.
Despite being illegal since 1956, quackery has been thriving in India. While there is no official count of the number of unlicensed ‘doctors’, who operate in India, according to a 2009 report on the CNN, former president of the Indian Medical Association Ashok Adhao had said, “I can say that for every 100,000 qualified doctors in our country, there are 200,000 quacks.” According to other estimates, there are 2.5 million doctors who practise without a degree in the country.
If one goes to the Gali Baraf Wali, less than two kilometres from Bara Hindu Rao, they can bear witness to the fact that traditional unlicensed Indian methods of healing are alive and perhaps here to stay for a long time.
Ramesh (name changed) had come to the clinic run by pahalvan brothers Mohammad Salim and Mohammad Naeem to get his mother treated for a part of flesh that had come off her back.
Ramesh tells me that he has also had to wait for six hours before the pahalvan could finally tend to his mother but he does not mind. “The reality is that there is no care in government hospitals. Over here, they do not wrap the bandage around in a hurry. The intention is not to get it done quickly.”
Another patient in line is a one-year-old child who had hurt his wrist while playing with his sister. His father was sitting with him, waiting for their turn. He says, “Jo kaam yahaan paanch din mein ho jayega, usse aspataal mein mahina bhi lag sakta hai (The work which gets completed in five days over here, can also take a month in a hospital).”
Everyone I spoke to was of the view that despite the fact that healthcare in government hospitals was actually more affordable, many just came here since it was more convenient, faster, and people-friendly.
“Stand in a line. Get your card made and the doctors also don’t talk to you properly. Just go to the OPD section and see the condition once,” a woman at the clinic tells me. She’s accompanying her daughter who had twisted her foot.
Since quacks in many quarters have not had the best reputation and are considered to be frauds and dishonest, it’s also perhaps the honesty of some of the pahalvans which makes them stay afloat.
Tarun, 24, has been coming to the clinic since he was in class 5. He says, “If there is a fracture, then they’ll tell you that they won’t be able to do anything.” In such cases, the pahalvans themselves ask the patients to consult doctors.
Despite their immense popularity, the medical community of trained doctors continue to be highly apprehensive of the pahalvans operating on the streets of Delhi. Orthopaedician P K Dava says, “Repairing a fracture isn’t just about fixing a bone. What about the torn tissue? Faulty treatment can hamper blood circulation or worse.”
While there is little documentation of complaints from people who have visited pahalvans, people visiting other quacks have had some sordid tales to tell. In 2016, the Delhi Medical Council had reported 240 complaints against fake doctors. In some instances, some fatalities have also been reported. A woman lost her life after being treated by a quack posing as a gynaecologist. In another incident, a 55-year-old man was reportedly paralysed after he was allegedly administered with a wrong injection by a quack practising in Shahdara.
The Delhi Medical Council, a statutory body constituted by the Delhi Government in 1998 has tried to end the thriving practice of quackery in the region. From 2010 to 2014 it issued closure orders to 715 quacks plying their trade in the capital city.
With private healthcare in hospitals being a luxury, government hospitals are the only legally recognised option available for a majority of Indians. However, India’s spending on public healthcare continues to be amongst the lowest in the world. As per the WHO World Health Statistics 2015, India ranked 187 out of 194 countries for its public healthcare services with the public sector spending only 1.16% on health as a percentage of the GDP.
According to a report in the Hindustan Times from the year 2015, around 10,000 people reach the out-patient department of AIIMS, Delhi, daily. People from different parts of the country camp throughout the night with the hope of getting an appointment with the doctors before anyone else. Even for people who have terminal diseases like cancer, it may take months for them to actually begin with treatment at AIIMS.
Perhaps this is why a local health NGO in West Bengal took the decision to work with local quacks and give them a little more expertise in theoretical knowledge, which they lack. The programme initiated by the NGO resulted in a 14.2% improvement in the ability of 152 informal doctors in their ability to handle cases.
During 2016-2017 in West Bengal, there were plans to train 3000 quacks by 130 nurses and it had the wholehearted support of some professional doctors as well. Dr Abhijit Chowdhury from the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research said, “The aim is to turn the self-proclaimed, untrained village doctors into a group of skilled health workers who can deliver primary health care in villages and detect life-threatening conditions and refer patients to qualified doctors or medical facilities.”
In a country with an overburdened healthcare system, utilisation of resources is extremely important. While we cannot and should not be ignorant to the dangers unlicensed doctors pose, the truth remains that till the time India’s healthcare system isn’t bolstered up, people will continue to flock to these quacks, the dangers of their practice notwithstanding.