Feeding the hungry, helping the deaf hear: Meet more Padma Shri awardees
Jagdish Lal Ahuja aka Langar Baba feeds hundreds every day in Chandigarh. He’s 86, battling cancer and often strapped for funds, but he won’t stop. Dr Sandra Desa Souza was the first Indian doctor in India to conduct a cochlear implant. She has since helped thousands more. Meet the heroes.
For two decades, the hungry in Chandigarh have known where to go: outside Gate 2 of PGIMER (the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research) Jagdish Lal Ahuja aka Langar Baba (or his aides) hand out free food to anyone who needs it.
At the height of his initiative, he was feeding 25,000 people a day, through an operation that employed another 30 men and women to prepare the meals.
Ahuja isn’t a rich man, and he has little help. In fact, he is now 86, battling cancer, with his children and grandchildren demanding that he stop. But he knows the hungry are expecting him, so every evening he sends his black van to Gate 2, where a stall is unfolded and hot meals (typically of dal, roti, sabzi) are handed out. Food is also handed out outside the Government Medical College & Hospital. In winter, shawls, blankets, sweaters and shoes are distributed too.
The thing is, Ahuja knows what it feels like to be cold and hungry. Born in Peshawar in present-day Pakistan, he moved to Patiala with his family at Partition. At 12, he was, overnight, a refugee. He started selling boiled candy to help his family make ends meet.
In 1956, they moved to Chandigarh. Here, he sold bananas and became prosperous. In 1981, he began giving back. Since 2016, he’s been struggling to raise funds for this initiative, as his own means are now limited. He has sold real-estate to keep the daily meals going. The number of daily meals is now down to 800, but they’re handed out every day.
For about 18 months, Ahuja has been so unwell that he has had to have others do the distributing. Until then, he did it himself, every day. “He is a unique person, an excellent human being, and we highly appreciate his work,” says Dr Jagat Ram, former director at PGIMER.
An ear for an ear: Dr Sandra Desa Souza
In 1987, Dr Sandra Desa Souza, an ear-nose-throat (ENT) surgeon, became the first doctor in India to conduct a cochlear implantation procedure. She did it at Mumbai’s Jaslok hospital. Within the next two weeks, she had operated on nearly 15 patients with hearing disabilities, who flocked to Jaslok from across the country. Soon, patients from other parts of the world were heading to her too.
The 78-year-old surgeon has now been awarded the Padma Shri. “It’s a great feeling to give a patient the ability to hear. These procedures have truly been a game-changer for those with hearing disabilities,” she says.
Dr Desa Souza was born in Mumbai in 1943, into a family of doctors. Her father Dr Joseph Vincent Desa was a well-known ENT surgeon. Her mother ran a school for children with hearing disabilities. As a teen, Dr Desa Souza volunteered there too.
“It broke my heart to see these children struggle to communicate,” she says.
A doctor and a mother of three by 1974, Dr Desa Souza began working at Jaslok hospital the following year. She met the owner of a cochlear implant manufacturing company at a conference in the US in the late 1980s and, in 1987, organised a cochlear implantation workshop at Jaslok where a foreign surgeon demonstrated the procedure on four children. Dr Desa Souza carried out the implantation on a fifth child. That was India’s first such procedure by an Indian.
Over the years, Dr Desa Souza travelled around the world, learning new techniques and skills from renowned doctors. The government should step in to design long-term initiatives that not only fund such procedures but also cover the life-long maintenance of the external implant device, she says.