Obituary: Dr Satya Paul Agarwal, Indian Red Cross Society

Published: 17 November 2015 15:58 CET

Red Cross and Red Crescent partners paid tribute to Indian Red Cross Society Secretary General Dr Satya Paul Agarwal, who died in Delhi today.

Dr Agarwal had been the Secretary General of the Indian Red Cross Society since 2005. He was the chair of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Advisory Body on Sustainable Development and Health.

As Secretary General, Dr Agarwal helped prepare vulnerable communities for disaster by setting up First Medical Responders, a network of community-based volunteers with the first aid skills to save lives in the immediate aftermath of disaster. Among his successes were a modern emergency operations centre and a dedicated national water and sanitation response team. There were also innovative programmes in response to swine flu, polio and malaria, and an effort to modernize the society’s blood services.

In keeping with Dr Agarwal’s lifelong love of learning, he set up a post-graduate diploma in disaster preparedness and rehabilitation in 2006. Now in its tenth year, the course caters to students come from Red Cross and Red Crescent, NGO and government sectors. He also set up a course on health promotion through traditional Indian Ayurveda and yoga in collaboration with the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences and Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga, and with the support of the government.

Dr Veer Bhushan, Joint Secretary of the Indian Red Cross Society, said Dr Agarwal had made a huge contribution. “The First Medical Responders cadre was created to support the families and communities to which the responders belong. They are able to help their own communities before outside help arrives. And now this flagship programme is being rolled out in about 18 states,” he said.

Dr Agarwal’s training as a scientist was a key influence, Dr Bhushan said. “He knew piecemeal work doesn’t really help. Programmes have to be carefully evaluated and peer-reviewed. So we have a baseline, and tracking the impact is something we will focus on in coming years. That is his legacy. That is his vision.”

Jagan Chapagain, who was the IFRC’s head of Asia Pacific until earlier this year, said: “Dr Agarwal was instrumental in setting up the First Medical Responders network. These are the first people to arrive at the scene of a disaster or emergency. In addition to first aid, they help with water and sanitation and hygiene promotion, psychosocial support, search and rescue, and dealing with those who have died.”

“First Medical Responders are a fitting legacy of Dr Agarwal’s passion for health care and the welfare of the most vulnerable people,” said Chapagain.

A former neurosurgeon and academic, Dr Agarwal was India’s longest-serving Director General of Health Services, holding the post from 1996-2005. As a public health administrator, he played a pivotal role in disaster relief operations such as the super cyclone in Orissa in 1999 and the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, and responses to diseases such as pneumonic plague and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. He served on the governance or management boards of many organisations including the Tuberculosis Association of India, the National Disaster Management Authority, the Bureau of India Standards and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

He received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Tuberculosis in 2005, the Dr B. C. Roy National Award for Eminent Medical Person in 2002 and a doctor of science from Panjab University in 2007. In 2010, Dr Agarwal received a Padma Vibhushan award, the third highest civilian honour in India. On hearing about the Padma Vibhushan award, he said, “The call from the Home Ministry on Monday morning made all our (Indian Red Cross Society's) humanitarian work worthwhile. The award is for reaching out for those who need help the most.”

Dr Agarwal wrote several books and in recent years, took to Twitter to spread his views on health and humanitarian issues to an even wider audience.

In keeping with Hindu tradition, Dr Agarwal was cremated today. He is survived by his wife Sarita Agarwal, daughter Ashima Sharma and son Tushar Agarwal.