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Madras Musings wishes all its readers a very Happy New Year!                      (ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII NO. 18, January 1-15, 2013
The Public Health Centre, Mambalam
A memorial to a life of service
By Shobha Menon

Minister C. Ponnaian inaugurating the PHC's 25th anniversary celebrations. Also seen in the picture are 'MC' and T.T. Vasu, the Chairman of the PHC Trust.

On October 28, 2012, at a health centre in a busy West Mambalam locality there was delivered a letter all the way from Seattle, USA (just one of many similar others!). It was a note 'of appreciation and gratitude', thanking 'the wonderful team of doctors, for the excellent attention and care given to my mother during her stay there. The staff is polite, efficient and works with a smile which makes a big difference to the patients and their families. Our good wishes to the family of the Public Health Centre (PHC) for the continued saga of care and service to humanity.' To think such unstinted and warm praise is for a health centre that began in a tiny thatched shed 60 years ago! It started as an attempt by M.C. Subrahmanyam, a Gandhian activist, to institutionalise the concept of a community health centre run by the public for the public! And how it has succeeded!

A household name in West Mambalam and surrounding areas, the hospital is well known in other parts of the city too for its homely atmosphere, its humane approach, expert medical attention, and affordable cost. 'MC', as he was affectionately called, was the quietly fiery spirit behind this now modern multidisciplinary integrated hospital com-plex. Seldom has there been a person who did more for an institution or spent more time in it, yet wanted to be less known for his contribution to it and its growth! The PHC's celebration of MC's birth centenary was a year-long tribute that concluded last month and, as Dr. M.K. Srinivasan, its present President and Medical Director, says, "None other than Gandhiji has had a year-long celebration of his birth… it just shows MC's continuing influence on the people of this area, and the volunteers."

From its thatched shed beginnings in a slum over-run area, it was a struggle to put up the first permanent buildings and get full-time staff. The help from the TTK and TVS institutions and, later, the service organisations, besides the generosity of numerous specialists and doctors who freely gave of their time and enabled the PHC to meet the needs of a growing community, have been considerable. But the more inspiring story of MC and the PHC is all about how a small group of volunteers with little in their purses, but determined commitment in their hearts, provided, first, basic medical services, then more sophisticated ones for a needy community.

Born in a low-income Brahmin family of Tiruvannamalai in North Arcot District, Subrahmanyam lost his father at an early age, and was raised by his mother and aunt in Madras. During his tenure at the Muthialpet High School, he was influenced by his teacher, the Vedic exponent and Aurobindo scholar, T.V. Kapali Shastri. Finding the youngster joining a group of students who were protesting against the repressive Simon Commission and, therefore, not attending school, Shastri is believed to have discreetly enquired from the School Office whether the examination fee had been paid by Subrahmanyam. Learning that the payment had not been made, he paid the fee out of his own pocket to make sure that his favourite student did not miss out on the examinations!

After his BA in Literature, Subrahmanyam went on to a career in journalism. Then, follo-wing stints in several media organisations, he joined the State Government as Informa-tion Officer. It was while T.T. Krishnamachari was campaigning in West Mambalam in the early 1950s that the Central Minister, who was to grace many a portfolio, expressed his dismay at this little corner of India that seemed to lack every amenity you could think of, most of all medical facilities. Among the journalists listening to him was MC, and he began to act on the idea!

Besides accepting donations from the well-to-do, MC wanted West Mambalam to participate joyfully in building its own health centre and his band of volunteer friends went from house to house on a funds mobilisation drive, with brochures, proper receipt books, etc. in hand. At the PHC's formal opening on September 20, 1953, present was C. Rajagopalachari, then Chief Minister of Madras.

Portrait of the late Dr. Lakshmi Chaturvedi, the first volunteer doctor unveiled in 2002.

The present Honorary Secretary, T.A. Subramaniam, was around 18 years old when he first got involved with the PHC. "When the Centre began, it was in 1000 sq ft of leased accommodation in a thatched shed. Its honorary doctors were Lakshmi Chaturvedi, N. Ramanathan, S.K. Raghuraman and Thirumal Rao. 'Mixtures' and tablets were given at the Centre at an average price of Re. 1!" With the PHC becoming more and more popular, demand for in-patient admission (particularly for maternity cases) increased. The Madras Government was approached for some land and 4½ grounds of water-logged poromboke land was allotted by the then Chief Minister Kamaraj. The In-Patient Block, the PHC's first permanent building, was opened by G.B. Pant, then Union Home Minister, on December 21, 1958.

Picture of the early volunteers during the 1950s.

In 1960, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer inaugurated the clinical lab. A surgical ward and theatre were supported by Ramnath Goenka's donation of Rs. 10,000 (with all surgical and laboratory equipment provided by the TVS family, T.S. Krishna in particular) and opened in 1963-64. By 1966-67, construction of a new OP and Investigation Block had begun and it was inaugurated in 1969. The total area by then was about 5000 sq ft, but space constraints continued to be felt. The Government provided another two grounds!

The PHC bought an adjoining two grounds from a private owner, extended the IP Block and named it the TTK Block. It was opened by Sardar Swaran Singh in 1976. T.A. Subramanian recounts, "The invitation for the function was printed with the timings of the opening of the Doraiswamy railway gate to facilitate movement of guests. When TTK, then the Finance Minister, received his invitation, he found that the level crossing was closed for the major part of each hour. At that time, the Railway Budget was being compiled and he had immediate construction of a subway here included in it. Work began on an 'urgency certificate' and was completed within record time. So was born the Doraiswamy Road Subway!"

Another portion of the OP Block was opened by M.S. Subbulakshmi on February 3, 1980, with Governor of Tamil Nadu Prabhudas Patwari presiding. In 1982, when a defunct social service organisation handed over two grounds on Thambiah Reddy Road, the PHC began a school for mentally and physically challenged children, with 25 children initially.

The BVSN Murthy Training Centre for special children (physically/mentally challenged) now trains 60 children a year. In 1984, the Neuro Block was constructed as an extension of the In-Patient area through several donations. By then, there were 34 visiting honorary specialists, 18 duty doctors and about 150 para-medical staff besides supervising staff!

The PHC's popular Paediatric Department, founded in the early 1980s, has been recognised by UNICEF for its best practices followed! The hundreds who flock to the Centre daily for its brand of care attest to the superior treatment they receive.

On October 18, 2004, at the golden jubilee celebrations of the PHC, Chief Guest P.S. Ramamohan Rao, Governor of Tamil Nadu, commended "the splendid and pioneering voluntary services of the PHC and hailed the fact that the history of the PHC is essentially the biography of M.C. Subrahmanyam". In this context, T.A. Subramaniam remembers, "The OP Consultation Block was named the MC Block, much against his wishes… he never wanted any statue of himself, no photos. We chose to violate his wishes."

The Cardiac Block or N. Teeka Singh Block was opened with cardiac surgical facilities, OP cardiology, and state-of-the-art Cath Lab in January 2012.

C.R. Hariharan, a retired employee from LIC who underwent a bypass surgery shortly afterwards, says, "The average cost of a surgery is less than a third it costs in other hospitals, and the medical and nursing care is exemplary. Charges for various investigations, like Lab, X-ray, Scan and Surgeries are not even 50 per cent of other private hospital rates."

What started with a rudimentary structure has now expanded to a moderate-sized, non-commercial, non-profit hospital catering to the needs of people from the lower and middle income classes. This has been achieved solely through aid from philanthropists and commitment of the employees and volunteers. Spread over around 16 grounds, the Centre today boasts of well-maintained wards and exclusive speciality departments. At present there are 60 consultant in different disciplines, visiting on different days.

Managed by an elected governing body, the PHC on an average day treats around 350 patients in the OP Department and admits 20 patients in the IP department. It has around 55 normal deliveries and around 150 surgeries under various branches a month.

At the valedictory function of the birth centenary celebrations of MC (12.12.2012), Dr. R. Radhakrishnan, IAS, Health Secretary of Tamil Nadu, remembered with gratitude the care his own grandmother received in the 1950s, "in this friendly neighbourhood hospi-tal, with care given in the best Mambalam traditions!"

Even today, the Public Health Centre continues to be a role model of effective social change, through a combination of bold vision and strong values. It is a standing tribute to the commitment and passion of exemplary individuals, who continue in the steps of their extraordinary leader, MC!

Real service, not projecting himself


In a crowd, MC was shy, self-effacing, withdrawn and unobtrusive. Though its founder and general secretary, he seldom projected himself on any PHC platform or in any publication nor did he pose for a photograph. 'Real service and no exhibitionism' was his motto. MC believed in the dignity of labour and would often manually clear the choked drains and stagnant sewers himself. Bits of paper and -cotton carelessly strewn around would be picked up by him and put in dust bins. He used to settle every bill for any treatment availed of by him at the PHC!

A bachelor, he opted to live in a frugal rented accommodation throughout his life. When friends secretly arranged to build a small residential annexe to his favourite haunt, the PHC, he refused to move in and arranged, instead, to find public use for the space.

'MC' retired from the Sunday Express after a stint in the Government's Information Department. During his last years, he moved on to edit The Indian Review. He was known for his writing skills and his use of simple language for communication. Besides being a sound political and social thinker, he was a good cooperator too – the Mambalam Cooperative Stores concept was begun by him! A dedicated Congressman, he was also deeply spiritual, and drawn to Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother of Pondicherry.

He was 92 years old when he passed away on May 2, 1993 and, according to his own wishes, the PHC worked as usual even on the day of his death.


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In this Issue

How about a Festival of Chennai?
Are things moving again in the Poonga?
Bharati complains about the Police
In-Sight into ensuring better eye-sight
A memorial to a life of service
Three pioneers of industrialisation
18th Century Madras Lockyer saw

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


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