Gandhiji’s words ‘Be the Change You Want to See’ have been the biggest inspiration for BusinessLine’s Iconic Changemakers, Dr Rani Bang and Dr Abhay Bang, a doctor couple who have carried out transformative healthcare work in Gadchiroli, a remote district in Maharashtra.

“The real iconic changemaker was Mahatma Gandhi,” the soft-spoken Dr Abhay said in his acceptance speech, dedicating the award to Bapu and to the villagers of Gadchiroli.

The Iconic Changemaker award is presented to someone who does unique work that has withstood the test of time and lasted many decades, someone whose ideas have been adopted and followed by many.

The Bangs’ work has travelled a long way, from Gadchiroli to Geneva. It has been replicated in 70 countries, influenced national policy in India, and even changed the WHO’s health guidelines.

The doctor duo transformed the way India and the world have tackled high infant mortality. Soon after completing their medical education in the US, the Bangs could have worked anywhere but chose a remote, underdeveloped village.

“Changemakers should go to places where the problems are and not where facilites are,” said Dr Abhay, recounting the story of his father, an economist and freedom fighter, who went to seek Gandhiji’s blessings in 1946 as he was leaving for American shores.

Gandhiji said: “Why are you studying economics in America, why not in the poorest villages of Bharat.” His father immediately tore up his papers and spent his life in the villages, spreading the message of the Mahatma.

“The power of that one sentence — Be the Change You want to see — has inspired me lifelong,” said Dr Abhay, describing how he committed to try and improve the health of rural India.

In 1986, he, along with his gynaecologist wife Rani, set up the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health, and pioneered new models in Indian healthcare.

The most radical change was their home-based newborn care (HBNC), which revolutionised the way infant mortality is approached in rural areas. Basically, the model involved identifying one woman from each village and training her as a village health worker. “If babies cannot reach hospitals, then hospitals must reach where babies are,” said Dr Abhay, describing the philosophy behind the model.

In just three years, the Bangs had made a huge difference to the villages they were working in. Infant mortality fell by 62 per cent and the medical journal Lancet published a paper on their practices. Gadichiroli had gone global.

Today, based on their success, the Government of India is training 8.19 lakh village health workers under its Asha Programme. HBNC has reached 11 million newborns across six lakh villages.

Dr Abhay also recounted the journey of the couple in curbing alcoholism and tobacco consumption in Gadichiroli. He described how they found ₹340 crore was spent annually in tobacco and alcohol consumption, while the district plan outlay for the region was barely ₹157 crore. This prompted the Bangs to launch a people’s prohibition movement. Six-hundred villages stopped the sale of alcohol.

He concluded, with some thought-provoking lines for changemakers, on the ethics of it. “We need to ask questions — change for what, change for whom, who gains power from this change, and who gets the skills, he said.

There was a time when changemakers were ostracised and persecuted, he said, pointing to Galileo, and social reformers in India. Today, it is wonderful to see changemakers being celebrated, he said.