Eight-year-old Nguyen Hien is ecstatic. For the first time in his life, he will be able to walk, jump and even dance, thanks to his new Indian prosthetic legs. Popularly known as the Jaipur Foot, these artificial limbs are a dream come true not only for him but his poor farmer parents who had never thought their son would walk again.

Ever since both his legs were amputated below his knees, Hien’s life in his village Hop Hoi in Vinh Phuc, Vietnam, had come to a standstill. But in July this year, the Jaipur Foot changed his world.

Hien is not the only one. In the last six weeks, the Jaipur Foot has transformed the lives of about 500 people in the rural villages of Vietnam who have suffered under-knee amputations. But had it not been for the wife of Vietnam’s President, this free fitment of prosthetic legs would have never been possible.

Earlier this year, when the Vietnamese President visited India, his wife, Nguyen Thi Hien, expressed her interest in the Jaipur Foot. “When she heard that the amputee can walk, run, climb, squat, sit cross-legged and perform daily activities with ease with the water-proof prosthetic leg, she was very impressed,” said DR Mehta, Padma Bhushan awardee and founder, Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS), the not-for-profit making the Jaipur Foot.

The foot was first developed in 1968 after three eminent orthopaedic surgeons at the SMS Medical College Hospital, Jaipur, realised that the artificial foot available from America and Germany was unsuitable for Indians. Led by Dr PK Sethi, director and professor of rehabilitation, SMS Medical College and colleagues Dr SC Kasliwal and Dr MP Udawat, the first prototype was developed by master craftsman Ram Chandra.

About 58 fitments had been done when DR Mehta, then an IAS officer working with the Rajasthan government was admitted to the same hospital with a badly broken leg. Although he didn’t need a prosthetic leg, he decided to do something to make the Jaipur Foot affordable after seeing the numerous patients at the hospital, many of them from economically underprivileged communities.

Free for all

Thus, in 1975, BMVSS was born. “Its healthcare model was based on compassion. A decision to give it free was taken because we wanted to reach out to all disabled, irrespective of their caste, age, religion or gender. Beginning from one centre, BMVSS now has 22 branches across India and normally holds about 50 fitment camps in a year in different districts and remote areas of India. It provides more than 16,000 prosthetic fitments every year and has helped 1.7 million people with physical disabilities in India get back on their feet,” said Mehta.

So impressed was the Vietnamese President’s wife after her visit to the Jaipur Foot centre in New Delhi that she immediately requested BMVSS to assist needy people in Vietnam. Once the memorandum of understanding between Government of India and BMVSS was signed under the aegis of the Vietnam-India Friendship Cooperation treaty, it was decided to hold two fitment camps to be able to reach out to a larger number of people.

So, in July this year, the BMVSS technical team comprising two prosthetists and four technicians arrived in Vietnam with their equipment. This included 20 bags, each of 25 kg of Plaster of Paris and equipment like grinders, cutters, vacuum suction machines, pipes and ovens.

Organised in collaboration with its partner Spark Minda Foundation (SMF), the BMVSS limb fitment camps were held in the government hospitals of two provinces. Although the prosthetic legs are given free by BMVSS, its costs are met by associate SMF, the CSR arm of the Ashok Minda group. Under this partnership, BMVSS has received an annual funding of ₹60 lakh since 2016, according to Praveen Karn, Head of CSR. “We believe the Jaipur Foot has the power to change lives and we want it to reach everyone who needs it in India and abroad,” said Karn.

Making a big difference

In Vin Puch province, where the first of the two camps were held, 55-year-old Nac Huan has been waiting patiently for her turn. Huan has travelled from her village 25 km away with her 18-year-old nephew for the Jaipur Foot. “I used to work in the field. But after one of my legs had to be amputated, I have become dependent on others. With this foot, I can become independent again and work in the field,” she said.

For 33-year-old Nga, who lost her right leg in an accident in 2017, the Jaipur foot is a lifeline. Married, with two children, Nga was no longer able to continue with her work as a saleswoman after her leg was amputated. Since then, she has hobbled around on crutches and resorted to selling fruits to earn a living. “I’m looking forward to returning to work and ensuring I have money to send the children back to school.”

Although 54-year-old Tran Noi, who lives 50 km away, had to leave her village very early in the morning, she shows no signs of tiredness. Noi was only 20 when she lost her leg while working in a brick factory. Abandoned by her husband after she became disabled, Noi survived by selling soft drinks. Now, after being fitted with the Jaipur Foot, Noi looks forward to a better life.

Technician Balram, who has been with BMVSS for 35 years, understands her pain. A beneficiary of the Jaipur Foot himself, Balram knows how vulnerable his disability had made him. So, although he and the BMVSS team have been constantly on their feet since the camp was inaugurated, neither he nor his colleagues are complaining. “The Jaipur Foot gave my life back. I am happy I can do the same for others,” said Balram.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi