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‘Mindsets are more important than skill sets’

The Ramakrishna Mission (RKM) has been the heart and soul of Swami Kalikrishnananda’s life for as far back as he can remember. The long-serving assistant secretary of the RKM Sevashrama charitable hospital in Vrindavan, was born into a family of devotees and grew up next door to the Mission’s centre in Rajahmundry, the historic city on the banks of the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh.

The 44-year-old Swami Kalikrishnananda has been with the Mission - officially that is - for 22 summers, and has served at RKM Sevashrama for more than eight of those. The 300-bed charitable hospital began as a small homeopathic dispensary in 1907, and has grown into a high-quality, multispecialty healthcare centre that provides free or subsidised treatment to the majority of its patients.

The Tata Trusts have been among RKM Sevashrama’s staunchest supporters, providing financial and other assistance to help the hospital expand its facilities and services. Swami Kalikrishnananda says the two institutions are part of “one family” and harks back to a time (and a famous episode) that marked the start of the relationship: the meeting, in May 1893, between Swami Vivekananda and Jamsetji Tata — founders, respectively, of a unique spiritual organisation and an exceptional industrial enterprise — on a steamship voyage from Japan to Canada.

Swami Kalikrishnananda, who dropped out of an MBA course to join RKM, speaks here about the hospital under his charge, the socially-inclusive care it provides, and the partnerships that enable the effort.

Swami Kalikrishnananda

How important is the contribution that social organisations such as RKM make in helping address India’s healthcare needs?

Unlike in many Western countries, the private sector is huge in India’s healthcare sector. This despite there being a sizeable network of government hospitals in the country. Private hospitals have an enormous say and they are, obviously, money driven. Given the context, nonprofit organisations such as RKM have an important role to play in delivering medical services, either subsidised or at no cost.

Our effort has always been to give the best quality of care to all our patients, irrespective of their financial and social status. This is a 300-bed hospital and 180 of these beds are exclusively for financially stressed patients. They get free medicines, free beds, free consultations, even free washing and cleaning. We do it without compromising one bit on the quality of care we provide. More institutions and organisations should join this cause; that would be a benefit to society.

Given the top-notch facilities and services that RKM Sevashrama offers, and the fact that these are free or subsidised, is there a rush of patients coming here? If so, how do you cope?

There is a huge rush in our hospital compared with other hospitals in the region and that’s due to the quality and affordability of the services we offer. At present we have the necessary infrastructure to cope with the rush, but we have had to deal with a shortage of beds since the Covid pandemic hit. We have been forced to say no to some patients but this is a temporary phenomenon.

As I see it, mindsets are more important than skill sets. Not everybody has the necessary commitment to work in a charitable institution and in an environment that’s far removed from the corporate culture of private hospitals. Most of our patients are poor or from a middle-class background, and many are not educated. Handling such patients is a challenge, and you have to deal with them differently. This can become difficult sometimes; it certainly isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

How can India, as a country, provide adequate and better healthcare to its people?

Health and education are sectors where the government necessarily has to play the dominant role. The government has to come forward if change is to happen in our healthcare system. Charitable institutions such as RKM and the Tata Trusts can supplement government efforts and fill some gaps, but there is only so much that we can do.

Government hospitals have to raise their quality standards to come at par with private hospitals, and it’s not enough to merely build fancy facilities. Take the government hospital in Vrindavan as an example. It does not lack for infrastructure and equipment, but it suffers due to a severe shortage of staff. Similar is the case with the district hospital here.

It’s not as if this cannot be accomplished. I was in Kerala for nearly seven years, and the government hospitals there are as good as any private hospital. That’s not how it is in a majority of other states, which is why 80% of India’s healthcare needs are met by the private sector. But only the rich and upper middle class can afford private hospitals; a poor person stricken by sickness or disease, does not have that choice.

RKM and the Tata Trusts have ties that go back a long way. What are the ingredients that make for a fruitful partnership?

The fundamental ingredient is uniformity of ideas. The RKM credo is ‘service to man is service to God’. The Tata Trusts motto may be different but it’s similar in that both are committed to serving society. It is this uniformity in outlook that underpins the relationship between RKM Sevashrama and the Trusts.

It can be said this relationship began with that famous meeting between Swami Vivekananda and Jamsetji Tata when they travelled together by ship from Yokohama to Vancouver. Our present hospital building came up in 1963 — it was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru — and the Tatas made a contribution for its construction.

The majority of patients visiting the hospital receive free or subsidised treatment
The majority of patients visiting the hospital receive free or subsidised treatment

The Trusts have been supporting the Vrindavan hospital since 2015 in a variety of ways, and this has been a huge help. They have backed us financially and also provided us with technical support. Our association is strong, our bond is strong. We don’t consider the Trusts as separate from our organisation; we are part of one family with a shared spirit of service.

Indians as a whole are not too well-known for contributing money to social causes. Does that make it tough for charitable institutions like RKM to raise resources for its programmes?

I have to disagree with your contention. In India we have the concept of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’; we are a family and we help one another. When you consider the financial status of Indians and the amount they contribute to charity, I think the ratio is far better than in many developed countries. As far as RKM Sevashrama is concerned, about 50% of our monetary resources are raised through donations, ranging from a few rupees to more than a crore.

We have benefitted vitally -- as have a lot of other NGOs -- from funding coming through companies and their CSR [corporate social responsibility] pipeline. Then there are institutions such as the Tata Trusts, which have been our biggest donor. No other organisation has supported us to this extent, and as steadfastly, as the Tata Trusts.

The paediatric ward at RKM Sevashrama
The paediatric ward at RKM Sevashrama