New Delhi, India – When Dr Swaiman Singh, a cardiologist based in the United States, flew to India for a five-day visit last December, little did he know that his short sojourn would turn into a prolonged mission to save hundreds of lives.
The 34-year-old doctor, who has been living in New Jersey for the past 24 years, put his lucrative practice on hold to visit his homeland after getting distress calls from relatives in his native village, Pakhoke, in the western state of Punjab.
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The villagers told him that a close family friend had died after a massive heart attack at Tikri outside New Delhi, one of three main sites where thousands of Indian farmers have been protesting since November.
The farmers are demanding the repeal of three controversial farm laws that were passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in September last year without any debate in parliament.
The leaders of the farmers’ unions say the laws are designed to favour private corporates, who would gain more control over India’s vast agriculture sector and deny them the minimum price for their produce currently guaranteed by the government.
In defence, Modi’s government says the laws would provide the farmers with better marketing options for their produce and break a monopoly of commission agents and government-regulated marketplaces, known as “mandis”.
Multiple rounds of talks between the farm leaders and the government have failed to break the months-old deadlock. The farmers continue to brave the scorching Delhi heat, saying they will not return to their homes until the laws are withdrawn.
Singh was told by the villagers that a family friend died because there was no doctor available to treat him at the Tikri protest site.
“I thought I will come down to see what help I could offer, maybe arrange some doctors at the site and leave,” Singh, who had also volunteered at the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, told Al Jazeera.
“But when I saw the condition of the elderly farmers, my heart just wouldn’t allow me to leave.”
The doctor says he started alone, “bought a small table, a few chairs and medications and started a small camp”.
“The second day, I was joined by another person and then another, till slowly we grew into a full-sized community with a hospital, library and makeshift houses,” he told Al Jazeera.
Realising “that this might be a long fight”, he left his fellowship programme at the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center midway to support the farmers’ agitation.
“For the past six months, we have been providing free medicines and all kinds of medical help to farmers, including COVID testing. We have also started a night shelter, a movie theatre and a library,” he said.
Singh has left behind his wife and three-year-old daughter in the US. He says his family life has taken a back seat “because we’re fighting for a greater cause”.
Singh moved to the US with his family at the age of 10. As a child, he saw his father, who was also a farmer, and his grandmother suffer in Punjab because of a lack of good healthcare.
That motivated him to opt for the medical profession and dedicate his life to serving others, he says.
Singh and his colleagues call their camp Pind California – “pind” meaning village in the Punjabi language – due to the community it has grown to become. More than 1,100 makeshift tents pepper the sprawling site like confetti, offering free food, milk and water filtration plants.
“We are organising everything from toothpaste to washing machines at the site. Thousands of tarpaulin sheets, mattresses, blankets and masks have been organised for the protesters. A makeshift library has given out over 10,000 books,” he says.
“We have done whatever we possibly could in the COVID fight, including dispelling rumours, pushing people to get vaccinated and urging them to follow COVID protocols.”
The cardiologist is also the founder and president of the NGO, 5 Rivers Heart Association, which operates in the US, India and Ghana. He has leveraged his network to mobilise nearly 100 doctors to be posted at the protest sites on a rotational basis.
Singh’s goodwill has seen individual donors coming forward to donate generously from across the globe. Some of the fundraising is undertaken through social media sites while the rest is taken care of by the association.
To motivate the farmers, Pind California also organises sports tournament at Tikri, apart from regular screenings of patriotic Bollywood films.
“We are trying to inspire people to carry on with their fight,” says a volunteer in Singh’s team who did not want to reveal his identity. “Counselling sessions are also organised for farmers and their families on topics like diet, nutrition and the importance of exercise.”
The farmers say they are grateful for the services being rendered by Singh and his team of 30-odd volunteers.
“I would have been dead had the doctor not treated me for my persistently high fever and high blood pressure in January. I got free medicines, good food and nutrition supplements from his camp that helped me back on my feet,” says Kartara Singh, a 70-year-old farmer from Jalandhar district who has been camping at Tikri since December.
As well as farmers, Singh’s team is also assisting residents, policemen and paramilitary forces deployed at the protest site.
“In a day, 3,000-4,000 people get treated at our camps. There are cases of heart attacks, high fever, diarrhoea and depression, among others,” he told Al Jazeera.
Medical problems, though, are among several challenges that crop up daily. He says the government’s “apathy and nonchalance are also a huge bottleneck”.
Despite repeated requests to the Delhi and Punjab state governments for COVID vaccines for the past two months, amplified further through social media sites, Singh says no help has materialised.
Bad weather has also played spoilsport. The recent pre-monsoon showers and thunderstorms in the capital wreaked havoc on the site and some fragile structures had to be rebuilt.
Sanitation is another issue, with gutters overflowing with filth and rubbish which has considerably increased the risk of diseases such as malaria and dengue.
Singh says he initially had a team of more than two dozen doctors to help him at Tikri. But the numbers started dwindling when the country was hit by a vicious second wave of the coronavirus.
“Most medical staff had to go back to their hometowns. I currently have only three doctors with me. Thankfully, we have just signed up with the Punjab Chapter of the Indian Military Academy, the official training unit of the Indian army, which has promised to send us three more doctors,” he says.
Despite the hardships, Singh remains optimistic and has no regrets about putting his life in the US on hold.
“Material things come and go but saving people’s lives is critical because the dead will never come back,” he says.
Swaiman in Punjabi means “one who keeps his word”. The cardiologist is surely living up to his name, says a farmer.