While organ donation is still a rarity in the urban parts of India, a village in the western state of Maharashtra has set a laudable example by making all of its inhabitants body donors.
All 110 families of Anandwadi village in the state’s Marathwada region have given their consent to donate their bodies after death for scientific and medical purposes.
The deceased-donor ratio in India is around 0.34 per million, researchers Aneesh Srivastava and Anil Mani have estimated, which they say is “abysmally low by the standards of other developed countries.” The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi estimates that 200,000 people need a kidney transplant and 100,000 need a liver transplant every year, but just 2-3% of the demand is met.
Pledging one’s body and organs after death can greatly help bridge this gap, but cultural and religious beliefs often inhibit organ donation. A research published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology shows that a combination of lack of awareness (80.1%), religious beliefs and superstitions (63.4%), and lack of faith in the health-care system (40.3%) explain why family members refuse to consent to donate the organs of their deceased relatives.
Anandwadi sarpanch (village head) Bhaygyashree Chame recalls that two years ago, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, a campaign to eradicate blind faith, held a meeting in the village. The activists explained to the villagers that it was better to donate a body rather than cremating or burying it as the harvested organs could save hundreds of lives. The idea resonated with them and, after a gram sabha (village assembly) meeting to discuss the issue, the majority resolved to make Anandwadi India’s first body-donor village.
Anandwadi, with a population of 635, depends on agriculture and animal husbandry and has a 78% literacy rate. But the level of education is quite low. All the gram panchayat (village council) members are women; Bhaygyashree Chame, Kalpana Sagar, Sangeeta Chavre, Meera Sagar and Ayodhya Kame have created a mahila raj or women’s rule, they joke.
While the majority supported the organ-donation drive, Chame said it was tough to change the minds of at least 10% of the village, who were strongly influenced by traditional beliefs. It’s because Hinduism holds the human soul to be indestructible even after death. They believe cremation rids the departed soul of all attachment to the body and sets it free.
Therefore, villagers along with the activists went door to door to persuade every single family to consent to body donation. Once they had everybody on board, the gram panchayat met with representatives of the nearby Latur Civil Hospital, who arranged for them to fill consent forms for body donation.
But the hospital lacks the infrastructure to make the most of Anandwadi’s generosity. Without facilities to store organs safely until transplant, the hospital is collecting only eyes from the deceased.
Most people in India are cremated and their bones and ashes are dispersed into nearby rivers and lakes. The River Ganges is considered holy and its waters are heavily polluted to no small measure by the debris from the burning ghats that line its banks. So the Anandwadi gram sabha decided to preserve its water bodies by planting a tree in memory of the deceased and to use the ashes from the cremation as fertilizer. Already 10 mango, banyan, neem and tamarind trees have been planted to create a small garden in the cremation ground.
Women’s rights enshrined
Anandwadi’s progressive instincts go further. The all-women gram panchayat passed a resolution to give women an equal share in the family’s property, which is not a widespread practice in India. All land-ownership documents in the village include names of both men and women.
Anandwadi participated in the Maharashtra government’s Mahatma Gandhi Tantamukt (dispute-free) Village scheme in 2008, resulting in no requirement for even a single police visit to the peaceful village in several years. Around 90% of the villagers are teetotalers, Chame claims.
Self-help groups have been founded to make women financially self-sufficient. They make chutney, pickles, papad and handicrafts. A special team of eight women regularly attends fairs and exhibitions to sell these products.
There is also an increasing focus on education, especially among women, and more girls are studying up to the post-graduate level in nearby Nilanga. Women’s health-checkup camps are organized on a regular basis. The gram panchyat building was constructed entirely through collective efforts.
Community marriages are organized every year in the village. Anandwadi asks all its boys to take a pledge that they will not demand or accept dowry. Girls make a similar pledge not to marry a boy who demands dowry. This has ended the otherwise widespread practice and for the past decade, not a single marriage has involved dowry.
Public works for solid-waste and water management worth 6 million rupees (US$90,200) have been completed with community participation. The village is situated on the banks of the Manjara River and so is largely self-sufficient in water. It nevertheless employs a variety of water-conservation measures including sprinkler and drip irrigation.
Anandwadi is now aspiring to become self-sufficient in energy. The village has already switched to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs and is now looking at investing in solar power, says Dyanoba Chame, the sarpanch’s husband.