U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

NIH: Fogarty International Center NIH: Fogarty International Center
Advancing Science for Global Health
Advancing Science for Global Health
Home > Global Health Matters Jul/Aug 2013 > Profile: Fogarty Fellow Dr Ramnath Subbaraman examines mental health in Indian slums Print

Profile: Fogarty Fellow Dr Ramnath Subbaraman examines mental health in Indian slums

July / August 2013 | Volume 12, Issue 4

A male medical worker with stethoscope takes the blood pressure of an older woman, seated, in an outdoor clinic

Fogarty Fellow Dr. Ramnath Subbaraman is working
to determine the mental health impacts of life in the
slums of Mumbai.

By Arthur Allen

On a daily basis, millions of its people face police extortion, unpleasantly close neighbors, hungry rats, long lines to buy expensive, sometimes contaminated water, and the threat the government will destroy their homes. Clearly, stress has a whole different meaning in the slums of Mumbai.

So what are the mental health consequences of such an existence? Dr. Ramnath Subbaraman hopes to find the answers during a Fogarty Global Health Program Fellowship, which has helped him penetrate deeply into the life of Kaula Bandar, an illegal slum of 12,000 people living in makeshift hovels on a Mumbai wharf.

The main focus of Subbaraman's project is to determine the mental health impacts of life in a "non-notified slum." About half of India's 93 million slumdwellers live in such communities, which lack official recognition and thus have no access to municipal water supplies or other services.

The research project, which Subbaraman began in 2010, has already shown that the lack of fundamental needs such as water, toilets and shelter in Kaula Bandar appear to lead to worse health outcomes than in comparable "notified" Mumbai slums that have more stable access to necessary services. The project is supported by the Rockfeller Foundation, with research collaborators from the Harvard School of Public Health, New York University and a local NGO, Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR).

Subbaraman first became interested in global health on a year abroad in South Africa during the peak of the HIV epidemic. Then, as a medical student and Fogarty Scholar in 2005, he took care of sick AIDS patients and studied drug toxicities, anemia and other health issues in Chennai, India.

The research techniques he learned during that experience, Subbaraman says, were enormously helpful when he got to Mumbai and plunged into one of the densest slums on earth. He and his colleagues, including about a dozen young "barefoot researchers" he hired from the community and trained, first performed a comprehensive study of the area's drinking water, which is illegally tapped from fire department pipes and brought in through torn water hoses that traverse waterways contaminated with saline and feces.

While the WHO says every person should get 50 liters of water per day and Americans typically use 300, Kaula Bandar residents frequently have access to fewer than 20 liters per day. After conducting in-depth interviews in Tamil, a local language, Subbaraman and his teams entered homes, measured usage, tested samples and interviewed water sellers. They carried out a water study and also compiled a questionnaire on the chronic stressors of slum life. After being presented with the study data, city officials agreed to bring clean piped water to Kaula Bandar.

"We strongly felt the need to see local change and not rest on the notion that our research would have theoretical benefit years down the road," notes Subbaraman. In another example of research quickly making a difference, when a PUKAR survey showed an immunization rate of only 29 percent among the district's children under five years of age, the government provided assistance so PUKAR could train a community education team that increased coverage to more than 80 percent within three years.

"Fogarty contributed in a very significant way to the lives of the people in Kaula Bandar," says Dr. Anita Patil-Desmukh, executive director of PUKAR. "It supported Ramnath's outstanding scholarship, and this allowed him and the team to lobby the Mumbai government to start health camps and bring water into the community."

Some of the 18- to 25-year-old Kaula Bandar residents trained by Subbaraman and others through these programs are using their compensation from the research work for school bills, and may themselves pursue careers in public health.

More Information

Related Publications

To view Adobe PDF files, download current, free accessible plug-ins from Adobe's website.