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Jaipur Foot : The real story

How this great invention was made to reach thousands is a less known story.

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"Oh, Jaipur foot!" you exclaim. "I know all about it."

Well, what do you know? That the artificial foot was invented in 1968 in Jaipur by a traditional craftsman? That the orthopaedic surgeon Dr P K Sethi, who brought it to the world's attention, got the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1981?

Both true, but there's more to the story. Master craftsman Pandit Ram Chandra Sharma got no share of the prize money nor enough of the credit. Dr Sethi went away with the prize to consult for a commercial hospital fitting prosthesis. Between 1968 and 1975, only 50 or so limbs were fitted.

Yet, since 1975, over 300,000 limbs have been fitted. Another 600,000 beneficiaries have received calipers, crutches or tricycles. All given away free. India became the world leader in practical, low-cost foot prosthesis. And the Jaipur foot has become available throughout India and 18 other countries.

How did all this come about, if the invention crawled for 7 years after it won world acclaim? For that you have to meet the self-effacing Mehta brothers. That's the real story of Jaipur Foot's success.

Revived by a crash:

How Pandit Ram Chandra Sharma came to develop the Jaipur foot has been well told. He had been invited in the 1960s, by Dr Sethi to teach art as therapy to polio victims at the SMS Hospital. 'Masterji' as he is widely known, is however a restless man prone to looking around for problems to solve or things to make. He watched amputees being fitted with impractical, expensive, imported artificial limbs.

Ever the experimenter, Masterji created a foot made of vulcanised rubber hinged to a wooden limb; and the Jaipur foot was born. It has been continually innovated ever since with active involvement of Masterji. Its essence has however remained: ease and speed of fabrication, lightness in weight, low cost and suitability for working people in the Third World. Though the innovation attracted world-wide appreciation and gave Dr Sethi the Prize, it largely remained an object of adoration and failed to reach the thousands in need of it.

That process that took the foot to the people, was triggered by a crash. In 1969, a promising young IAS officer, Devendra Raj Mehta, was battered in a road accident in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. It left him with over 40 fractures and many months in bed. It nearly wrecked an illustrious future that was to include Deputy Governorship of the Reserve Bank of India, Director Generalship of Foreign Trade and Chairmanship of Securities and Exchange Board of India [SEBI].

After his long stay in bed ended, he was advised physiotherapy at the Sawai Man Singh [SMS] Hospital in Jaipur. The Jaipur foot had recently been invented and he saw poor, maimed people throng the hospital in search of it. They lived on the streets and waited their turn for a fitment. Mehta during his several visits, was struck by the huge number that was in need of prosthesis.

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