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March 15, 1999


What did Dr Preger do in Bangladesh?

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Who is Dr Jack Preger? What did he do in Bangladesh and what does he do in India?

In the early 1960s, he studied politics, philosophy and economics and obtained a post-graduate degree from Oxford University. "We were all rabid Marxists then and I decided to take to farming instead of a regular job."

The Leftist student movement then in Europe did have an influence on the young man who decided to visit a Third World country. "I went to Morocco and seeing the conditions there decided to work in a Third World country. Naturally, the best option was to become a doctor."

He enrolled himself in a medical school in England at the age of 41 and became Dr Jack Preger.

"That was in 1972 and I had just finished my internship. Bangladesh was still recovering from its wounds of liberation struggle and teeming with camps full of orphans. I went to Dhaka," recalls Dr Preger.

He worked in refugee camps meant for Urdu-speaking people who wanted to return to Pakistan. "The camps were located in swamps and during monsoon the situation used to be horrible."

Soon with foreign funding he established a 90-bed clinic in Dhaka and two farms on the outskirts of the city without realising that his hard work would soon go down the drain.

"The mid-1970s witnessed the infamous Bangladesh famine and the government was forcibly bundling off pavement dwellers to faraway camps which were again located in swamps. Mothers were willing to hand over their children to anyone who could provide them with some food," says Dr Preger.

"I was then associated with a non-government organisation, Terredeshome, Netherlands. They offered to put these poor Bangladeshi children in homes. A large number of mothers gave away their children.

"But I soon found out that there were no homes and the organisation was running a racket in adoption. They were charging large sums of money and putting them up for international adoption. I informed the Bangladesh government but was told to keep quiet or get thrown out."

But Dr Preger decided to spill the beans and made an issue of it.

"I was arrested in 1979 and put in a plane bound for Singapore. But the worst part was that the 90-bed clinic was confiscated by the government and sold to a businessman who turned it into a garment factory. The two farms were closed down and the children there were driven out," Dr Preger laments.

He went back to England with a heavy heart but his love for Bengal did not die. He chose the other side of the border and came to Calcutta the same year.

"I had first come to Calcutta in 1972 and since then came frequently to buy medical equipment and medicines for the Dhaka clinic."

For the first six months he worked for the Missionaries Brothers of Charity. Mother Teresa gave him a certificate stating, 'I have seen the work of Dr Jack Preger in Bangladesh and what I saw was very good for the people and the children. I do hope he will be able to give that same service to the needy here in Calcutta also.'

But being without a religious bent of mind Dr Preger soon ventured out on his own. He started a clinic for the poor below the flyover connecting the Howrah bridge.

Trouble started in 1980 when the FRO described him as a 'Christian missionary' -- he had accepted donation from an US-based missionary organisation.

He went to Delhi and explained his position to Union home ministry officials. Since Commonwealth citizens at that time did not need visas he was allowed to stay in Calcutta.

"In 1981 I had an air ticket to go to Europe, on a Wednesday. The FRO asked me to leave by Monday. On Tuesday they arrested me and put me in the prison and charged me with entering India without a missionary visa. I came out on bail and continued with my clinics while the trial went on."

Ultimately, in 1989 the then high commissioner of New Zealand in India, Sir Edmund Hillary intervened and the West Bengal government dropped the charges against him.

Within two years Dr Preger got Calcutta Rescue registered as a society by law and started two more clinics for the poor in Calcutta. Foreign donations poured in and volunteers from abroad worked regularly at the pavement clinics.

But Dr Preger's ordeal was yet to be over.

He was receiving donations from as many as eight European countries for Calcutta Rescue and its sister organisations like Calcutta Espoir, Help Calcutta and Calcutta Esperanza.

Under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, a clearance was needed from the Union home ministry to receive foreign donations.

"They kept on blocking our funds and started harassing us. Despite our submitting the relevant documents they would show us empty files," Dr Preger alleges.

Little did he know that it was usual to pay a percentage of the foreign donations and get the job done.

"We moved the Calcutta high court alleging abuse of power and won the case. The court allowed us to bring in Rs 1 million each month. The government moved the Supreme Court which gave an interim order allowing us to bring in Rs 1.5 million each month. But it also asked the CBI to audit our accounts and submit a report."

According to Dr Preger, the CBI audited Calcutta Rescue's accounts and submitted its report to the apex court though he has not been given a copy.

Despite such harassment, Dr Preger carried on with his mission with zeal. His pavement clinic at downtown Middleton Row was closed down, allegedly at the behest of a property developer. Anti-socials forced him to close another clinic in north Calcutta as he refused concede to their extortions. But he carried on.

At present his organisation runs three clinics in the city other than a leprosy and tuberculosis clinic, funded by the World Health Organisation, where each day hundreds of poor people come for treatment.

There are three schools for poor and orphaned children -- one near a red light area in Calcutta where children of sex workers are taught and fed.

In addition there are two vocational training centres in the suburbs where 36 women are engaged in training others and making handicrafts meant for export.

So what are his plans particularly after the FRO action?

"I will certainly not take it lying down. We had always won in the court in the past and this time too I am confident of winning this case. I do not know of their reports but I have nothing to do with religion and am not bothered about the religion of the people whom we are helping," Dr Preger says confidently.

But sources in the West Bengal government revealed, "The orders came from the Union home ministry. The adverse reports are that he chooses to work in areas dominated by minorities and they benefit from the foreign funds."

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