Innovator in community health
In 1981 I went to the Foundation for Research in Community Health with an economist friend who had applied for a job as a researcher there. He came out of the interview impressed with Dr Antia and suggested that I see him. I walked in uninvited and in two minutes flat Dr Antia offered me a job to head a new research project to review what non-governmental organisations in Maharashtra were doing in the health sector. All I had told him was that during my post-graduate studies I had worked on a project enquiring into what the corporate sector was doing in rural development activities. This chance meeting became a career in research on health systems financing and economics in India.
While Dr Antia was a person with innovative ideas and vision, his most outstanding characteristic was the space that he gave researchers and activists to work independently and unquestioned. Everyone did not enjoy this privilege but he could judge who deserved it and he was rarely wrong.
He belonged to a profession which is largely in the business of making money and he was concerned about this. He despised the promotions of the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession’s malpractices. He could have had a lucrative practice as a plastic surgeon but he opted instead to do reconstructive surgeries in leprosy patients, especially of the hand. This did not earn him money but gave him satisfaction and his patients’ appreciation because they regained lost livelihoods.
Dr Antia was a strong upholder of medical ethics and would not hesitate to rebuke friends in the profession who violated them. My colleague Manisha Gupte and I wrote in a newspaper about the abhorrent practice of hymenoplasties which gynaecologists were doing to reconstruct lost virginities. In the process we exposed some well-known doctors. One such gynaecologist and friend of Dr Antia complained to him. He must have been surprised when Dr Antia chastised him.
His contributions to community health have been remarkable, from the Mandwa and Uran community health projects and his work for leprosy patients to espousing an alternative health policy via the ICSSR-ICMR joint report on Health for All to his faith in the potential of panchayat raj institutions.
His greatest contribution to the health sector has been the human capital he mentored. FRCH graduates are making their own waves and contributing to India’s health sector. This is a reward above all awards that a guru like him would cherish.