Australian Chiropractors Help Indian Rock Breakers and Tea Pickers
Thursday, January 15, 2015 01:44 PM

Women in the north-east Indian city of Siliguri constantly put their bodies under strain: dragging rocks from the local river, smashing them by hand into stones, and carrying heavy baskets to a truck that takes the load for use as road base.  They and other women in the north-east of India who work as tea pickers, also carrying heavy loads, had little hope of relief until a group of Australian chiropractors made a trek to help out.  It is now an annual event and this year the clinics treated 2,200 people over two weeks.

Perth chiropractor Mike Brett, who volunteered his time and expertise for the December trip, said the women had a lot of spinal issues due to the hard work. "It's predominantly both a tea plantation area so a lot of these people are tea pickers and that's quite backbreaking work," he said.

"The other thing they do is they're rock breakers. So they drag rocks out of the river up onto an area, then they smash the rocks up into little stones and put the stones in a basket.  "Four women would lift the basket onto the head of another woman and she'd walk off to a truck and put it in there.”  Dr Brett said the women were often in pain.  "Obviously they have a lot of spinal issues with the jobs that they were doing and they're in a tremendous amount of discomfort, pain and disability," he said.

"The sort of things that we would help was anything from protruding discs with raging sciatica, neck problems, headaches - all the typical spinal stuff.  "It's just great to see some of the miracles we managed to create in that short time."

The group consisted of eight chiropractors from Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, and the UK, as well as 15 chiropractic students from Murdoch University in Perth.  Emily Wills, a fifth year student, said the patients were appreciative.  "The tea pickers work from 7:00am to 5:00pm every day carrying tea on their heads," she said.  "Most of the back problems were caused from everyday work and the pressure that comes from carrying this weight and loading the spine so heavily."

"One of the highlights for me being the main photographer was seeing the kids and patients' faces when they realised they could either walk again or simply sit up straight. I managed to capture some of those faces, luckily, on record.  "They were very gracious and appreciative of how they were treated."

Hands On India, as the charity is known, began in 2006 when a Perth chiropractor first made the trip Dr Brett said the region had evolved since then.  "When we first arrived in this region, 30 per cent of the children were in child labour - that's kids starting from 3 years of age all the way to 12 years of age - and they were breaking rocks," he said.

"A lot of those kids are now in school as a result of the work that we've been doing.”  He said the charity identified opportunities to end poverty by empowering women.  "We got them to form groups of 70 to 90 women and we would give them money," he said.  "Six of those women would be voted to be the keeper of the money so they need six signatures to invest the money. "They would then invest in a piglet. Piglets are $35 Australian. After a year, if they raised that piglet, it turns into five times that amount of money. They bank the money into their account and then they decide what to invest in next.  "With a little bit of profit they can get the kids out of rock breaking."

The charity also funded schools in the city.  "We also funded five schools - the incredible part about that is to pay for five schools' running costs, educate 660 kids, and that includes paying for the teachers, it only cost us $23,500," Dr Brett said.  That is less than the amount he pays for one of his sons to attend a private school.

Dr. Brett said the impact of Hands On India went far beyond the treatment and the initial money given to the groups of women.  "We've helped 2,000 women so far and indirectly it affects all their families, about 7,000 people," he said. "We actually don't have to help them anymore, so the money we raised this year goes to different women's groups.  "It's micro-economics at its best - they don't have to pay back interest and it's responsibly invested. It's giving them power."