In Conversation with Devasish Sharma - Joint Resident Commissioner of the Assam Bhawan, Mumbai and Founder Chairman and Trustee of Deepsikha Foundation
Born in Jorhat, Assam and an alumnus of Ramjas College in Delhi University, G Plus spoke to Devashish Sharma, Joint Resident Commissioner of the Assam Bhawan in Mumbai and Founder Chairman and Trustee, Deepsikha Foundation.
Deepsikha Foundation is an NGO that is well on its way to revolutionize cancer care in the country and in its roots has the idea that if our community participates in cancer eradication, cancer as a disease can be nipped in the bud.
After graduating in English Literature and completing his post graduation in Mass Communication, Devashish Sharma joined the Assam Civil Services in 1992 where he was first posted at Barpeta. “I was straight out of college and with one month of training, I was thrown into ‘Operation Bajrang’ - the flood relief operations at Barpeta. Back then, officers had to learn on the job with a lot of trial and error,” said Sharma. After this, he was posted as the OSD to the then Governor of Assam, Lt General S K Sinha (retd.). “I was lucky to be working under people like him who could inspire. He used to say that an individual should always try to leave a place, better than he found it,” added Sharma. In 2003, Sharma was posted as the Deputy Resident Commissioner of the Assam Bhawan in Mumbai.
How the idea of Deepsikha was conceived:
The image of an Assam Bhawan brings to mind, bureaucrats, red lights, minsters and other government functionaries. However, the Assam Bhawan at Mumbai is the only bhawan in the country where every room is dedicated to a cancer patient, thanks to one man’s tireless efforts in cancer eradication.
The Assam Bhawan in Mumbai was spread over 25000 sq.ft of area. When Sharma was posted in Mumbai, the building was in shambles, had no electricity and was surrounded with barbed wires. “The Assamese diaspora in Navi Mumbai would consider this as an eyesore and everyone would question as to why the building was left there to rot,” says Sharma.
“Building hospitals and buying expensive material is fine, but people visit the hospitals when it’s too late...”
After Sharma took over as the Deputy Resident Commissioner, of the Assam Bhawan, he identified that the Bhawan was built as a shelter for cancer patients. “Everything is available in Mumbai, except a roof over your head which is very expensive. People who come to Mumbai for treatment are only in a position to get treated for a few months after which, they are financially exhausted, and they leave their treatment to go back home and die,” he said.
He then wrote a 100 (hundred) page report to the Government citing all the problems with a written petition from the cancer patients at Tata Memorial Hospital to help with their accommodation. The Government heard their plea, and in June 2004, Assam Bhawan in Mumbai opened its doors for cancer patients. Word about this facility spread like wildfire and within two months, the entire Assam Bhawan was occupied by cancer patients.
However, it was often found that patients were too late in coming for their treatment. He realized that more than treatment, people needed better and efficient screening and awareness.
Sharma, then worked on translating the cancer awareness material issued by the Tata Memorial Hospital in Assamese (vernacular) and with his musician friend, Nupur Bordoloi (who passed away with cancer), and embarked on a journey to spread awareness about cancer and its detection across several places in Assam. His journey started in Barpeta and moved to places like Mangaldoi, Jorhat, Morigaon and Dibrugarh. All of this was made possible with the help of the District Administration, and this is how Deepsikha was born.
Deepsikha Trust, now provides support to patients who come to Mumbai for cancer treatment by providing affordable or free (to the needy) accommodation, hygienic food, transport from their place of stay to the hospital and back, organizing blood and platelets for out station patients, financial support for patients who are economically challenged etc, simultaneously keeping in mind the very low rate of Cancer detection at early stages for which, they had initiated cancer awareness and screening camps in the North Eastern states in the country.
The vision of Deepsikha is funded by donors and good Samaritans, who volunteer financial support and help as required. Among several donors, the names of Ratanlal Didwania and family, Nita Doshi of MESO group and Hasomal CharitableTrust, found their way into the conversation.
“Gujaratis, Marwaris and Assamese are all a part of our goodwill fund. The idea of the goodwill fund is that you don’t pay money directly to Deepsikha. The donors can provide support however they see fit, whether it is accommodation, treatment, food or transportation,” said Sharma to G Plus. However, adding to that, he said, “We have been able to fill only around twenty percent (20%) of the needs of the patients and there are a lot of patients who still need our help despite our want of doing it. But we feel that we have built some kind of in-roads into voluntary donation among people and the ultimate goal is that people with cancer should be helped and now, there is no looking back.”
The Government’s role in fighting cancer:
While the sale of smokeless tobacco is illegal in Assam, it continues to be sold out in the open and is one of the major reasons for the rise in cancer cases in Assam. Sharma speaking on the matter said, “Any amount of regulations and stringent laws can be put in place, but laws can be interpreted and misinterpreted in different ways. The onus is on the society and on educating the younger generations on its ill-effects. It is upon the manufacturer, who is producing it knowing fully-well, how it is harming the society. If the society can say no, then this is what is going to make a difference in the long run.”
While he feels so strongly about cancer and its eradication, we him asked about the Health Minister’s recent remark about ‘cancer and divine justice’ that drew massive flak from the people and media to which he said,”I am a part of the government now and being a part of the government, I should not be commenting. Once you are in government service, you no longer have to right to comment on what your Minister has said. It would be wrong on my part to say anything.”
Today, Deepsikha has four centres in Mumbai alone and several other projects opening up across Assam. He along with his team envisions that they would like to set up a radiation centre and then graduate to a small hospital for the patients.