DEEPAK Premnarayen wears multiple hats – he is the executive chairperson and founder of ICS Group, chairperson of the United Nations’ Women – Business Sector Advisory Council (India), till recently convenor of the India-South Africa CEOs’ Forum and mentor to start-ups globally and in India just to name a few. An experienced entrepreneur and business leader, Premnarayen also has a philanthropic side. His struggle to find a cure for his son’s clubfoot disability at birth led him to think about children born with this deformity and founded MiracleFeet India.
Established in the year 2011, the organisation is committed to creating access for treatment of children born with clubfoot, a birth defect in which one foot or both feet are turned inwards.
In a quick chat with GiveIndia, Premnarayen shares his son’s journey of overcoming clubfoot, what keeps him motivated, his grandchildren and more.
GiveIndia: Did you have an epiphany or a moment of revelation that led you to start MiracleFeet in India?
Deepak Premnarayen: When our son Kunal was born, me and particularly, my wife were totally shattered when we learnt that he was born with clubfoot. Back then, we were blessed to have Dr. K.T. Dholakia – India’s leading orthopaedic surgeon and a dear family friend who assured us that Kunal would be fine and would even get well to play tennis as he was aware that my father-in-law was the first Indian to have played at Wimbledon. He also knew that I had played national-level cricket and badminton. So Kunal being able to play sports meant a lot to us.
He experimented with a novel non-surgical line of treatment. Every few weeks, he changed the bandages and the feet were further stretched sideways. Whenever the bandages were changed, portions of Kunal’s skin would rip off, causing blood to ooze. This line of treatment lasted for four months. He also started wearing special shoes to hold the ankles at a particular angle. This lasted for almost nine months. Thereafter he started wearing special shoes with callipers for the next three years.
All through this, my wife was totally devoted to taking care of him and meticulously following the programme. Kunal even started playing tennis when he was four. He went on to win a national title and also play internationally.
I was happy to see him recover, play and lead a normal life. But that was also the moment I realised we were extremely fortunate to have access to the right medical treatment and afford it, But this is not the story for more than 85% of the children born with clubfoot in India – as approximately 33,000 children are born with clubfoot every year. The idea to do something for those children sprouted at that moment and later gave birth to MiracleFeet India. Our family has been on this journey for the last 10 years.
Initially, we were funding another NGO, but in 2018 we decided to have our own team on the ground. Over the last 2.5 years and despite the pandemic the number of children under treatment have only grown – from 40 to 3,500 and even the team has grown strong.
GI: Share one of your first experiences of being involved in the social sector? A moment that is significant to you in some way.
DP: It was my visit to a clubfoot clinic in Mumbai where we met many parents who had come with their children affected by clubfoot. The pain and worry that was there on their faces left a very deep stamp. But when my wife and I shared with them the story of our son who was born with clubfoot and how with similar treatment he subsequently led a normal life, we could see the glow on their faces which left an even deeper stamp in my heart.
I wanted to do something for them and when my son and my daughter-in-law came up with the idea of starting MiracleFeet India, I thought this is the right moment. Before I could realise we had expanded our services to 86 districts and successfully cured 3,470 clubfoot children in the span of 10 years.
GI: What three things help you stay active and motivated?
DP: First is MiracleFeet India. Waking up each day and realising that I am inching closer to my mission, that is, in seven years we want to cure 25,000 children per year and help them reshape their lives. This means scaling the clubfoot programme from 86 districts to 640 districts, developing 200 trainers who could provide medical training and treat clubfoot children using the Ponseti method. We also want to address the superstition/ stigma that a mother delivering a child with clubfoot, and particularly a girl born with this deformity, faces in the family and society.
Second is the UN Women BSAC (Business Sector Advisory Council) for India that I chair. We address the economic empowerment of women and gender equality. Over the last 10 years, through self-help groups over 40 million women entrepreneurs have received support. Today many of them are wanting to fly and have big dreams but they don’t have access to working capital without a collateral. As a result, they borrow money at high interest rates of anywhere from 18-36%. A partnership between UN Women, World Bank and with State Bank of India (SBI) as the fund manager has been set up to provide inexpensive working capital at 9% without collateral.
Then comes my grandchildren. There is nothing that I love more than spending time with them. They make me feel young, motivated and are a constant reminder of keeping the child alive in me.
GI: What have you learned about yourself ever since you founded MiracleFeet India?
DP: I have learned how fortunate I am – my son was able to get the right treatment and lead a normal life. I am even more fortunate that God has planted me in a position to help other children with clubfoot and to reshape their lives through our organisation.
GI: When was the last time you did something for the first time? What was it?
DP: I’ve stayed in game parks and forests in the past, but not for more than three days. But due to the lockdown, I had to stay in the forest for six months! Fortunately, we have a property at Kanha Tiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh) and my wife, two children with their spouses and my grandkids stayed there together.
During our stay, what we saw around the property was extremely disturbing. One early morning, when the temperature was about 7°C, I was cycling and there was this boy who was sitting in the middle of a mud road, deeply engrossed in reading a book. He was wearing just a torn T-shirt, short pants and had no shoes.
Subsequently, I took my grandkids to meet his family and a few other families to educate them about poverty and lack of basic amenities. My five grandkids have now taken ownership of two children each to assist them with their education. More importantly, it is to show my grandkids how fortunate they are and how satisfying it is to share. That was also the first time when I got the opportunity to teach my grandkids to bring change in the lives of people around them.
GI: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose?
DP: My needs are simple – I would be happy to live on fruits, lauki (bottle gourd), khichdi and sabudana (tapioca pearl) in warm water. During my college days I had a stomach issue, due to which I survived only on this diet for three years.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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