The Unsung Heroes of our Nation
Protecting civilian safety, several soldiers have been rendered paralysed in unfortunate accidents. The Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre, Mohali, provides these valiant with a new lease of life by engaging them in sports and ensuring their physical and mental well-being.
In 2005, Ajit Kumar Shukla, a gunner from Army Air Defence (AAD), was posted with Rashtriya Rifles in Jammu and Kashmir. He looked forward to marrying his sweetheart after returning from this sensitive posting. But, fate had other plans. In a counter-terrorist attack, a bullet seared his chest and abdomen, inflicting serious spinal cord injuries. Though the terrorists were gunned down, this attack rendered Shukla, paraplegic. At a young age, when boys just begin their careers, Shukla, who hails from a poor family in Bihar, was medically boarded out at the age of 25 years (i.e. retired from service due to spinal cord injury while serving the Nation).
Naib Subedar Anil Kumar Jha served as an instructor at MCEME, Secundrabad. In 1996, he was travelling in a Bihar-bound passenger train with his family when a group of dacoits entered the train and started looting those on board. When a dacoit attacked his wife, Jha rose from his seat. The dacoit fired at him and a bullet pierced his lung. The attack left him permanently disabled.
Naik Balbir Singh, 52, from Uttarakhand, was gravely injured at an IED blast in Jammu in 2000. Yet, he does not regret his decision to join the Army. Ex Sepoy B Rama Krishan, from Andhra Pradesh, was posted with Rashtriya Rifles in Jammu and Kashmir when the brakes of his vehicle failed and he fell 300 feet down in a mountainous Nallah. Krishan, a product of Navodaya schools, became a quadriplegic, i.e. all his four limbs were paralysed.
Despite grave adversity, these soldiers and several like them have learnt to not lose hope or dwell in self-pity. Instead, they value the opportunities that have come their way and have chosen to fight the existing challenges with a smile on their faces – all thanks to the training imparted to them at the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre (PRC), Mohali. "I learnt exercises and the use of a wheelchair here," says Krishan, who joined the Centre last year.
"I was recuperating in the Command Hospital, Chandimandir, when I first visited this Centre. I was inspired by an inmate who was paralysed neck down. I felt, if he could bear a smile and do his work then why not me? Especially, since I could still use my hands," says Shukla.
"These people are tough and there is no remorse on their faces," says Director (PRC) Col Jaswant Singh Spehia, adding, "with the advancement in medical facilities, we have been able to help them lead a near normal life." The Centre aims to empower these ex-servicemen and make them self-reliant. Disability is what one imbibes or supposes, but within that 'the latent talent' is nourished. "It is, therefore, not the disability, but what counts is the ability of a person. These people are equally capable, if not more, to deliver the results. They are participating in Para games, working in the sheltered workshop and the PRC office," says Spehia.
In the 1970s, the Indian Army established two Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centres in the country – at Kirkee (1974) and at Phase VI, Mohali (1978), to provide institutionalised care to those soldiers who could not provide for themselves the constant medical care associated with quadriplegia and paraplegia. PRC Mohali, a registered charitable institute, was established on 10 acres of land gifted by the Punjab Government and with an initial grant of Rs 39 lakh from the National Defence Fund. It is funded by the Kendriya Sainik Board, Ministry of Defence, New Delhi and HQ Western Command. Contributions have also been received from individuals and corporates.
Currently, PRC, Mohali has 31 residents, both married and unmarried. Boarding, lodging and clothing are free for the residents. Here, they have access to the best medical facilities, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and occupational therapy. A typical day at PRC begins with PT at 6 am, physiotherapy at 8 am followed by training at the workshop till noon. The inmates are given vocational training in tailoring, knitting with computerised machines, and candle-making. They are also trained in basic computer skills. The evenings are reserved for meditation along with indoor and outdoor sports activities. Cemented courts are available for wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, while there is also a cemented track for wheelchair races.
"The aim is to keep ourselves physically fit. If we are not physically fit, we will not live even beyond two years," says Shashi Kumar, 35, of the Armoured Regiment. Confined to wheelchair, the ex-servicemen are exposed to several problems such as bed sores, pressure points, urinary tract infection, renal failure, loss of muscle power and respiratory problems.
Kumar, 35, won a gold in javelin, silver in discus throw, and a bronze in shot put at the 17th National Para Athletics Championship held in March 2017 at Jaipur. He was stationed as a dispatch rider in Jodhpur and was just 23 years when he met with an accident. Returning to the mountainous terrain of Khampur in his home state of Himachal Pradesh, where houses are located in remote areas, would have curtailed his self-dependence and increased his dependency on others, so Kumar opted to stay at the Centre. "It would take two to three people to bring me down the hills," says Kumar, who was briefly employed in a school. "This is a second lease of life for me. We have learnt how to keep ourselves fit, and control our bladder and bowel movements," he adds. Kumar has a five-year-old daughter.
"Playing games induces a competitive spirit," says Shukla, a matriculate, who works as a support staff at the Centre. Once his fingers manoeuvred sophisticated weaponry, today they deftly type on the keyboard. As the Vice-Captain of the Wheelchair Basketball Team, representing Punjab, he has travelled throughout the country, and as a member of the national team, he visited Bali (2016) and Nepal (2017) where India stood second in the International Wheelchair Basketball Tournament held at Kathmandu. Reflecting on his life, Shukla says, "If I see from a family point of view, I have everything." He married his sweetheart after the accident, and the couple had a twin boy and girl with the aid of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). He knows that PRC has given him and other residents immense opportunities and such platforms may not be available elsewhere. "I can work as a data entry operator, and even teach wheelchair basketball to civilians who are disabled like me," he says.
Under the patronage of the Army, these specially-abled ex-servicemen have become self-reliant and have learnt the importance and technique of keeping themselves physically fit. Since they are capable of working and earning, they want suitable opportunities where they can contribute. Spehia says these men can be employed as data entry operators, at receptions and other computer based work. Their bio-data has been sent to the placement node in Chandimandir, but a response from civilian employers is yet to come. A hiccup could be that these servicemen can only work for restricted hours for the fear of bed sores and pressure points. Further, there must be a suitable infrastructure for their accessibility at the workplace.
To integrate them in civilian life, there is an urgent need to bring a change in the thought process within society. In a cut-throat cost-cutting competitive environment, are the employers ready to generate more opportunities and create more infrastructural facilities for the men who have given up their today for our tomorrow? It is time those capable of bringing change start working to establish suitable facilities, which can be availed by both paraplegic ex-servicemen and paraplegic civilians.