BBC Interview with Dr. Jack Preger, Founder of Calcutta Rescue

May - 17


Time: 11.30 AM
Location: No location set

Aired on the BBC Asian Network Thursday 15 May 2017, 11.30 am

I’ve got with me now my next guest: Dr Jack Preger MBE. This is a really extraordinary story. Jack set up a charity in Calcutta to offer free health care and education to the needy. Which we are going to talk about. He has dedicated his life to the people in the east Indian city. 

Dr Jack, I’m glad you’re here, you’re a fellow Mancunian. You were born in Manchester, I want to get your thoughts about what happened on Monday evening.

I was born in Hightown, (Coronation Street!) Manchester, a long, long time ago. I never broke the old connection with Manchester. I grew up there, went to school there and when I heard this dreadful news it reminded me so much of the Second World War. I was in every blitz in the city and I remember the casualty figures going up outside Cheetham Hill Road public library and the horror with which we looked for names of people we knew; and I understand so well what fellow Mancunians are going through now and they have my deepest sympathy.

What we were hearing in the immediate aftermath families looking for their children and the names of people, we are still in the process of finding out the names of those – that horrific feeling as a parent, not knowing what has happened to your loved ones.

And then there are no many aspects to this tragedy. A Manchester-born lad, a student there, someone who had all the advantages Manchester has to offer in terms of education, social facilities, healthcare and everything like that – and gets radicalised in some way or another and loses his reason and it’s a terrible thing that we have to try and undo – that process of damaging particularly young people and bringing them into what they call the mainstream. And the mainstream in this country is something that we should all be very proud of.

Just to continue with that, you come from an absolute position of knowledge and experience because you have been working in Calcutta and you treat the poor people in Calcutta. We want you to tell us how you got to that point. You were born in Manchester and that’s now what you do.

It was a long journey. In fits and starts. When I was under trial in Calcutta High Court my career was described by the prosecuting counsel as ‘chequered’ light and shade in other words.

I had a kind of intimation, an epiphany, or whatever you want to call it, that I had to become a doctor. I didn’t hear any voice thank goodness – because they put people away who hear voices. But what I did get was when I was farming in Pembrokeshire, an incredible feeling that my mind was being opened and a thought, not a sound, ‘become a doctor’ was being put into my mind and my head was  then closed. It was completely crazy. I had been spreading cow-manure on one of the top fields in the farm and that seemed a strange thing to happen. But it became a fixed idea in my mind. I applied to go to medical school and managed to get in by some miracle at 35 years old; and felt I had to go to a Third World country. There was an appeal for nurses and doctors to go to Bangladesh. I worked there from 1972 to 1979 when I was deported. Then started in Calcutta and I’ve been there ever since.

I believe you began as what we call a pavement doctor so you were treating people under a flyover is that right?

I had a very normal existence in Bangladesh, I had a 90-bed in-patient facility and two farms, as well, for pavement dwellers and abandoned children, children abandoned in the famine. I came from that to nothing in Calcutta, very little funding. The Marian Fathers in the US helped initially. I had no surgery, no place to work so I worked on the streets for some years.

Tell me what it must have been like, treating people in to begin with, in a very hot, loud busy country a million miles away from Manchester, people speaking a language you couldn’t understand, it must have been tricky.

I did pick up some Bengali language in Bangladesh over seven years. The thing was I picked up the street Bengali, the street accent of Dhaka town so that when I came to Calcutta people who had emigrated – Hindus came across in partition – from Dhaka immediately recognised I had come from Bangladesh by my Bengali accent. And the people living on the streets, many of them were migrants from Bangladesh so we had a common language. But of course my Bengali and their Bengali were not quite on the same level.

You then went on to establish a clinic and then Calcutta Rescue; can you tell me a little about what Calcutta Rescue does?

We started from scratch with a pavement clinic and volunteers: some were backpackers travelling through Calcutta, others had worked with Mother Teresa. These volunteers went back to their original countries and they very kindly set up support groups for our work. We have support groups in nine countries, including the UK, here it’s called Calcutta Rescue Fund and they try to raise enough funds to keep us going.

Our work has expanded so much, each year our budget now is more than £750,000. We have two free schools (we used to have three but one was in a slum which was demolished), three clinics, two street medicine projects going round illegal settlements, we also have a handicrafts workshop and we do arsenic and iron filtration in villages in the north of the state. All this costs a lot of money.

You’re a small charity so what kind of support do you get?

We fight to raise funds and we hope, for example in this country, to make contact with people with roots in India or roots in Bangladesh for that matter, because many of our patients migrated from Bangladesh to Calcutta and we hope to make good contact with the Indian community here. So they have these roots where we are working and we hope they hope will respond to our appeals.

You cover health issues, medical care, safe drink water as you mention, also education.Can you tell me a little about the stories you hear from people you help what kind of reaction they have, how you change lives.

We tend to be trying to concentrate on patients who require help that they can’t get anywhere else. For many years, when there was no free treatment for HIV, we were one of the very few NGOs in India to provide free treatment and, as the Government has started to provide first line and then second and now some third line treatment for HIV, we are working with the Government and we are dealing with the resistant cases of HIV for which the Government does not have the drugs.  We buy them. Also with HIV there are many very dangerous opportunistic infections. We provide treatments for those patients who come to us from Government hospitals. That’s a very important part of our work.

The same was for many years with TB. There was no proper treatment, then it came in but it didn’t deal with resistant cases so these multi-drug resistant cases or extensively drug resistant TB cases – we have been treating them and now the Government has started to treat them, thank goodness, so there is  development and improvement there. But a disease like TB is in epidemic form so there will always scope for us: for example in TB and HIV to provide supplementary nutrition for people unable to work, or HIV widows who have lost their husbands and have children to bring up so if they don’t get a proper diet their treatment doesn’t work properly So that’s a big item for us – Nutrition

I‘m interested to know your opinion on healthcare, as someone who’s British, we have the NHS here, do you think we take it for granted?

The NHS! I was a patient yesterday for my annual check-up on an operation they did years ago. The NHS is a continuing miracle. When I go to St Mary’s Paddington, which is my local hospital, for whatever reason, I see from people from all over the world. Either regular patients in the outpatients or I’ve been an inpatient there in a ward full of what you would call a multi-cultural assembly of patients. The staff are also from all over the world. It’s an example of the kind of society we should aim for to cover all aspects of our culture.

When you’re in Calcutta what’s people’s reaction to the fact we have the NHS here and I wonder if there’s a desire by people there to have free health care there and if it’s a viable option one day.

The first thing is that a number of our doctors have worked in the NHS and they’ve come back and that’s a very good thing: they’ve trained, some are specialists on the way to becoming consultants, they’ve done excellent training here. I am actually a patient in a Calcutta hospital where one of the gastro-entomologists was trained in Britain. That’s a great thing the NHS has has done, training third world doctors who’ve gone back to their original countries. There is some understanding of the NHS among patients – but not among our patients because they are at the level of not knowing very much about the outside world. But the middle class view in, say Calcutta, they view Britain and the US as places to envy and to try and get perhaps their children or grandchildren into universities in those countries. Whether those children or grandchildren come back is another question.

You’re listening to the Big Debate on the Asian Network. I’m talking to Dr Jack Preger. It’s a really extraordinary story about how Jack set up a charity in Calcutta, Calcutta Rescue, providing free medical care, education and skills training for tens of thousands of people who live in slums and on the streets. We’re talking about healthcare and I want to pick up a little more on that issue.

It’s made a really big difference to so many poor people the poorest people in Calcutta and West Bengal. Calcutta Rescue provides lots of medical care and skills training. We were talking about how the NHS is perhaps taken for granted by so many people. I wanted to get your insight a little more about the concept of health care. Indian people tend to be quite fatalistic. When it comes to health they blame God for what’s happening, they don’t necessarily think it’s a human being’s responsibility to look after them and they’d probably rather spend their money on a wedding or university. Can you tell me a little about your insight on that and have you experienced that with Indian people you’ve helped to look after.

I think there are different approaches depending on your social class. If you are a member of the bourgeoisie and you have a reasonable income, you demand the very best medical care for yourself and your nearest and dearest that you can afford. There is very little understanding that every person living say, in Calcutta, has a fundamental right to basic medical care. That is something completely alien. We go to about 16 squatter settlements with our street medicine ambulances and the attitude of the bourgeoisie (again!) is that these people are loafers – as they call them – they are pickpockets, alcoholics, what the ladies do for a living – and actually the women work their guts out as cooks, housemaids, and all that kind of stuff and they are also frowned upon. It’s terribly difficult that we are showing some of our doctors who are, of course, middle class, that they are living in the most affluent part of Calcutta and virtually round the corner, on a plot of waste ground, are people living at the lowest level of existence imaginable. This is eye-opener for a number of our doctors and senior staff that these people are your neighbours and these people are part of your society although you don’t up to now really recognise them or their needs.

Do they recognise it in the end, is it kind of an awakening.

There’s a terrible stigma over many, many years against leprosy. One of our three clinics is a leprosy clinic and the atmosphere there between staff and patients is incredible: there’s real friendship. I have seen the distance between the people who deliver medical care to the HIV patients, initially, in our other clinic. The distance between them and the patients, they regarded these people as untouchable but, as they get to know them and realise these people are just like them but happene to have contracted this disease, in many, many case through no fault of their own, blood transfusions or a misguided husband, they realised these people require not simply med treatment but human contact and they get them now.

And these people that your charity helps, these are people who really have been forgotten by society – almost that is the case they don’t have identity and your charity gives them an identity.

To some extent, at the bottom, if they are on the pavement, say along the River Ganges, near the burning ghats, the cremation centre, they are regarded as just people that if you’ve got a relative you’re taking to be cremated you give them a handout and then forget them. We have a clinic right down there. Mother Teresa used to have some nuns as well in a corporation building, helping these people but, even now, those at the bottom on the streets are not recognised as people entitled to what the rest of us enjoy.

I’m curious to know what drives you to do what you do.

I am glad you asked that question. It would be very difficult to explain and impossible for most people to understand.

If you don’t mind me saying, you’re still going strong after all these years.

It is not me, and that’s where it becomes difficult. I believe very much in the Holy Spirit and I believe I have been visited by the Holy Spirit and it is that which has kept me going in Bangladesh and Calcutta.

So you have a spiritual drive to do this to help people.

I believe the Holy Spirit is as real in this world as anything we see in our daily lives. And I’m not the only one. I believe that if you try to work out what the Spirit wants you to do, you get a certain amount of guidance, you get into terrible trouble at the same time but actually most of it is there in some of the religious writings in the Koran, or the New Testament, and some of the teachings attributed to Christ like he said ‘whatsoever you do unto the least of these my brethren you do unto me’. That is a thing that rings true that if you go to these illegal squatter settlements and see the need of those people and then gain their confidence and give them not only medicine but installations such as latrines and tube wells and now we are going to build a school in one of them. You get the feeling that really you are in touch with something far more important than latrines and tube wells and a school. You’re in touch with, as a Sufi said. ‘Lift the stone and there you will find me’ and that is what I feel regularly in Calcutta.

You’re kind of an honorary Asian aren’t you because you were given a non-Asian award at the Asian Awards. How does that feel?

I felt – as we say in Manchester – I was gobsmacked. I had no idea it was coming. Mother Teresa was a non-Asian predecessor in that Asian Award but she got it posthumously. I got mine while I’m still alive. It was, for me, an incredible introduction to an enormous gathering of Asians, mainly Indian I think, movers and shakers who attended the Park Lane Hilton Hotel for that ceremony. I hope that will bring a connection between the work we’re doing in Calcutta and that incredible community there that evening. I was extremely happy as a non-Asian to get that recognition because this reaching out between non-Asians and Asians in this work is supremely important.

Congratulations on that award. You’re listening to Dr Jack Preger who is behind the charity Calcutta Rescue. He created this charity, set up to help the very poorest people in Calcutta and West Bengal, providing so much, free medical care, education, skills training for loads of people who live on the street and I want to let our listeners know if they want to find out more about it. You’re on social media: Very much so: we have a Website: also on twitter and facebook.  Just quickly, what are your future plans? To keep the charity going.

We’ve got this arsenic and iron filtration in the North of West Bengal which is an enormous problem, and we have 12 installations and we’ve found abandoned brand new Government installations so we intend to work with the Government to run those abandoned installations. Each one can provide clean drinking water for maybe200 families. That is of one of our expansion plans.

We have expanded the street medicine programme and continue to find new squatter settlements to provide the service.

Thank you so much for talking to us Jack. That was Dr Jack Preger who was named as Philanthropist of the Year at the Asian Awards Ceremony in London. His charity has been helping the poorest of people in Calcutta for the past 38 years.