Illiterate Indian Women Perform Root Canal Operation



Bhawri and Kesar Devi of Tilonia village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district in India have never been to school. They used to work in the fields and also doubled up as village midwives to eke out a living. Now, the two women, in their 50s, are learning tricky dental procedures like root canal operation.

Bhawri and Kesar were chosen by a team of Italian dentists visiting Tilonia’s Barefoot College, an NGO run by Sanjit Roy, popularly known as Bunker Roy. They were looking to train village women to perform basic dental procedures and make villagers aware of dental hygiene.

“The idea was to simplify the procedures so that illiterate women could learn. For this, we wanted to select women who are not afraid of the sight of blood,” said Giuseppe Petretta, an economist working with four doctors on the project conceived four years ago.

Bhawri and Kesar fit the bill. And, their training in dentistry began at the Barefoot College.

“Dentistry is not so developed in India, especially in rural areas,” Petretta said. “So, we wanted to do something here. I scouted around the country for NGOs to get associated with us so that we could teach them.”

They found the Barefoot College to be the “perfect place”.

Bhawri and Kesar can now clean teeth, fill cavities, and are skilled in tooth extraction. They treat around 120 patients from nearby villages every month. They also teach children dental hygiene at night schools. Now, they are learning how to perform root canal operation. And, they are keen learners.

While performing a root canal on a patient’s wisdom tooth, the Italian dentist said, “Hand me the prop. Where is the mirror? Keep the tweezers ready.”

Bhawri and Kesar didn’t fumble. Deftly, they passed the correct surgical instrument to the dentist. And, not knowing English didn’t pose any problem.

“We used to call the instruments ‘kanta’, ‘aina’ and ‘cheemta’. The doctors taught us their English names,” Bhawri said.

The duo also gets unexpected rewards for a job well done.

“Recently, a person, surveying the area for mining work in a helicopter, had a toothache,” Kesar said. “With no dentist around, he touched down at the college helipad. Bhawri and me treated him. Since we don’t charge money, he took us for a joy ride on his copter.”