Healer extraordinaire

The death of Arun Kumar Sen, the inspiration behind the Students' Health Home, the biggest medical insurance scheme run by students in the country, has left an irreplaceable void

By Amit Mitra
Published: Friday 15 July 1994

-- His last act symbolised his philosophy of life: live for others. Arun Kumar Sen, who died on March 1 this year, bequeathed his body to a medical school for dissection and experiments. The press hailed this act as the first of its kind in West Bengal. The act was typical of Arunda, who spent a lifetime motivating the youth in Bengal.

Arunda's greatest achievement was forming the Students' Health Home (SHH), a unique health insurance scheme run by students. He implanted a sense of dignity to thousands of students by showing them that it was possible to achieve the impossible by collectivising and sharing -- the spirit that led to the formation of SHH.

A communist at heart, Arunda was deeply scarred by the great Bengal famine of 1943 and World War II and was inspired by the Chinese. In 1947, Arunda, along with some friends, met the dying revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya and desired to fulfill his last wish. The poet wanted a gold-nibbed fountain pen, a luxury in those days. By the time the money was raised, mostly by walking and saving on tram fares, the poet was dead. It then struck Arunda that only if the money had been collected earlier, it could have been spent on Bhattacharya's treatment.

A great idea is born
There were thousands of Bhattacharyas in the country -- bright young students, many of who were ill and could not afford medical treatment. Could they be organised to take care of themselves? On August 12, 1951, Arunda laid the foundation of what was to become the biggest self-help scheme in India totally run by students, where they could get every kind of medical treatment for a small fee.

Arunda would often say, "Students have to be taught that they had to give without expecting anything in return and only then could they hope to get anything." In 1978, Individual members had to pay Rs 3 annually, and wait for a month before they could avail the benefits. Institutional members had to pay the negligible amount of Rs 2.

In 1959, the Calcutta Corporation gave SHH a plot of land for a building in central Calcutta. But where would the money for the construction come from? And, more importantly, how could the students be involved in the whole process? Arunda came up with the brilliant idea that the students could donate blood to the Central Blood Bank, which would give SHH the money paid to professional donors. The state government promised a matching grant. The concept fused 2 major goals: involving the students in constructing the building while popularising blood donation among the youth.

Built on blood
When the SHH building was finally constructed after an effort spanning almost 2 decades, the main entrance proclaimed in proud letters: Built on the blood of students and the youth. By the '70s, SHH became a major force in the youth movement in Bengal. Various programmes like popularising blood donation through walks, and the distribution of piggy banks to schoolchildren to collect money during the Pooja vacations, were introduced. Hundreds of volunteers would converge on the SHH premises to count the small change from the piggy banks. In 1978 alone, Rs 40,000 was collected in one paise coins!

All this happened when NGOs hadn't yet become fashionable. In 1978, it was decided to spread the movement to the districts. Soon, 19 district centres were opened for outstation tours, for which the cheapest class railway fare would be given. One stayed with friends and ate the cheapest meals possible. The idea was that the more you save, the more people you can reach out to. There were many files in SHH, but nothing was confidential -- every regular worker had access to all the information. Gender biases were left behind the moment one entered the building.

Today, the building still stands, but the spirit is missing. SHH has become like any other government hospital. Perhaps the CPI (M) felt threatened by the apolitical organisation and the man behind it, who could mobilise thousands of youth and bring them out on the streets.

As the movement floundered, most of his former comrades left him. Unfazed, he continued to spin out ideas. Although he never entered SHH after 1979, a wistful look would come into his eyes every time he passed it.

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