Sydney Uni honours Delhi’s real-life superhero: The doctor who took her clinic under a tree

By Our Reporter
Professor Mark Scott and Dr Kiran Martin // Pic supplied

In a world often dominated by headline-grabbing controversies and fleeting social media fame, genuine stories of impact and transformation still manage to shine through. One such story is that of Dr Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha Community Health and Development Society, who was recently honoured with a Doctor of Letters by the University of Sydney. The degree, conferred on 13 October 2023, recognises her lifetime of tireless work in health, education, sanitation, gender equality, and financial inclusion in New Delhi’s slum communities.

Dr Martin isn’t your typical healthcare provider. She first turned her attention to the plight of the marginalised in 1988 when a cholera outbreak in a south Delhi slum caught her attention. Swapping hospital wards for a borrowed table under a tree, she began what would become a transformative journey not just for her but for millions of lives she touched.

The term “overachiever” feels inadequate when you examine her contributions. Her work has done more than just treat illness—it’s attacked the underlying conditions that lead to poor health and inequality. Her organisation, Asha, which translates to “hope” in English, was designed to catalyse change at a foundational level. By addressing socio-economic determinants of health and education, Asha challenges the deeply ingrained caste and class system in Indian society, as well as the unequal treatment of women.

If numbers are anything to go by, Asha’s work is an astounding success. The organisation has impacted the lives of millions and has supported over 4500 students from slum communities in receiving university education since 2008. Their health programs also boast some impressive statistics: an infant mortality rate of 11 per 1000 live births, significantly lower than the Indian national average of 28.3, and a tuberculosis mortality rate in Asha’s slums of just one per one million, dwarfing the national average of 32 per one million.

And if one needed any more proof of the magnitude of Dr Martin’s work, she has been lauded globally. She has lectured at educational powerhouses such as Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge and appeared before legislative bodies like the United States House of Representatives and the British House of Commons. Dr Martin’s contribution was recognised by her own country in 2002 when she was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours, by the President of India. Furthermore, her strategies have influenced both state and national slum policies in India.

Professor Mark Scott AO, the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sydney, couldn’t hide his admiration when he conferred the honorary degree. He highlighted how Dr Martin’s work has achieved outcomes that are “envied and emulated by governments and international organisations.” The university itself has collaborated with Asha since 2019, offering the Sydney Scholars India Equity Scholarship to enable postgraduate education for deserving candidates from vulnerable communities in New Delhi.

Dr Martin’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic also bears special mention. When many retreated into safety, she and Asha adapted their strategies to save lives and support the livelihoods of Delhi’s most vulnerable. Additionally, Asha runs a financial inclusion program, another step towards empowering these communities.

Recognition from institutions like the University of Sydney serves as a testament to the authenticity and impact of Dr Martin’s work. However, if you ask her, she’s likely to say the real reward lies in the faces of those whose lives have been changed for the better.

Here’s to Dr Kiran Martin, a woman who started her mission with a table under a tree and stretched it to reach the sky. It is individuals like her that remind us of the indomitable power of human spirit, resilience, and compassion.

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