Bel-Air was established in 1912 in Pune and was trans located to the verdant campus in Panchgani in 1914. Its dry and bracing climate is ideally suited for the recovery of TB patients. Dr.Rusomji Billimoria the founder of Bel-Air was the recipient of the first gold medal of Anti-TB Association of India and a recipient of Padma Bhushan from Rashtrapati Babu Rajendra Prasad in 1961.
Bel-Air has healed thousands of patients at a time when TB was considered incurable and had no medicine. Most of the patients were poor and were treated free. Bel-Air faced extra ordinary challenges right from the beginning.
Within a short time Bel-Air acquired a reputation of providing excellent quality of service and care for patients and catapulted itself to be one the finest in the country. Visits of celebrities became a regular feature and it became customary for every State Governor as well as the Chief Ministers, to pay a visit to Bel-Air, which occasioned the opening of a new facility or block.
In 1964, to ensure its continuity, the founder transferred the management of the hospital and sanatorium to the Indian Red Cross Society, Maharashtra State Branch and since then it has been a Red Cross project.
Bel-Air’s fortunes waxed and waned after the sixties. For the first fifteen years Red Cross Management saw Bel-Air develop and grow. Then it started declining in its contributions and by 1993 most of the buildings became dilapidated and the sanatorium was on the verge of a closure. The discovery of TB drugs, consequent shift to domiciliary line of treatment, loss of focus on sanatoria line of treatment, lack of funding support and a host of other reasons including labour unrest led to this sad state.
Red Cross entered into an agreement with Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament (MCBS) entrusting the administration of Bel-Air to the Missionary Fathers in 1994.
With the dynamic leadership of Fr.Tomy the revival phase of the Hospital started. Lack of funds was just one element, there were much serious problems like labour unrest and militancy. There were some influential political forces and rich land sharks who had set their eyes on the vast property in the hill station town. They had conspired to close down the hospital at the time of crisis and take over the land to make it a resort. Through troubled times to the beginning of the hospital’s revival, from 1994 to 2002, then Governor of Maharashtra, Dr. P.C. Alexander’s patronage was invaluable. The real revival began again in 2000 with the munificent donation received from the Zarthosity Brothers Fund to the tune of 1.25 crore rupees. A constant flow of funds from the Sir Dorab Tata Trust also helped considerably.
Over the years, Bel-Air Sanatorium enlarged its mission from TB to address the challenges of an unfolding disaster relating to HIV/AIDS. Since 1995 Bel-Air began to administer to HIV/AIDS patients when hospitals refused to admit them, government gave no support and Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) was not available. Families abandoned patients, no operations were performed on them and dead bodies were not even claimed due to the high level of stigma and discrimination.
On Bel-Air’s 90th anniversary, the then President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited Bel-Air as Chief Guest at a function where 2000 people attended. The visit of the President of the country to a small town in a region which had never been visited by any President before, gave Bel-Air its rightful place in the nation’s fight against HIV/AIDS. Since then, Bel-Air has prospered beyond recognition.
The visit of the President of India in 2003 was a turning point when he instructed the then Director General of NACO Mr. S. Y. Quereshi IAS, to involve Bel-Air into the National AIDS Control Program. Thus Fr. Tomy K MCBS, Director, Bel-Air Hospital was first appointed as the Civil Society representative to CCM( Country Coordinating Mechanism) of UN-GFATM (Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria) and later as the Chairperson of TRG(Technical Resource Group) for Community Care Centres in NACO for 2 terms.
It was the leadership of Fr.Tomy which led NACO to expand care & treatment services for AIDS patients in India. This was mainly achieved through GFATM funds. With more than 1200 ART Centres and 253 Community Care Centres (CCC), India took a significant step towards care of HIV/AIDS infected.
Bel-Air was acclaimed by National Public Radio (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11704607) as one of the best health care programmes in the developing world. Family Health International (PO Box 13950, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA) selected the director of Bel-Air as one of the most influential persons in the world in HIV/AIDS in 2009. A team of British Red Cross volunteers led a one year expedition from oxford in UK through Europe, Africa, and Asia to Oxford in New Zealand visiting all the Red Cross Programmes in every continent except the Americas. After the year long expedition they certified “the most inspiring Red Cross progrmme they visited was Bel-Air”. (www.oxford2oxford.co.uk)
Bel-Air Hospital was also awarded the Times of India Health Care Achievers Award 2014 in the category of “Innovation in managing long term condition”. Healthcare Achievers Awards 2014, an initiative by The Times of India and New India Assurance Co. is to celebrate achievements and recognize those healthcare providers who have raised the bar in healthcare with their dynamic spirit and innovative outlook.
General Hospital Wing. Panchgani is situated in Mahabaleshwar Taluka which is mostly located on the hilly terrains of Western Ghats with scantly populated villages scattered in the jungles from 4000 to 5000 ft. above sea level. Health care here is limited to certain private practitioners with no speciality services, diagnostic facilities or any secondary or tertiary level services. Even the Primary Health Care centers are understaffed.
It is in this context that Indian Red Cross Society decided to convert Bel-Air into a General Hospital. Currently Bel-Air has 9 full time doctors in addition to other 11 consultants. A paediatrician, an orthopaedic surgeon, a general surgeon and an anaesthesiologist are available round the clock with other specialists on call. An Emergency Department (Causality), a 22 bedded ICU with ventilators, a well equipped laboratory, pharmacy and investigations like X-ray, ECG etc. are available. In short Bel-Air is the best option for the 3 lakhs population around. But there are some challenges which Bel-Air is facing in this area. Bel-Air was historically viewed as a TB place and was dreaded. Adding to that starting of HIV/AIDS department deepened & complicated the stigma around Bel-Air. The private practitioners in the area most of whom are B.A.M.S. or a rare MBBS discourage the population from accessing services manipulating the TB and HIV stigma. However Bel-Air has slowly and steadily defied the stigma and is catering to growing number of general population.