Priyanka Kadam is the President and Founder of Snakebite Healing & Education Society (SHE-India), an organisation based in India that was founded to address snakebite and snakebite related issues in India.
Priyanka and her team are doing an excellent job of engaging with people across the country to reduce snakebites and create awareness about this neglected health issue.
What is your current job?
I am the President & Founder of Snakebite Healing & Education Society. My key roles include being a Social Activist, a Snakebite Awareness Volunteer and Community Engagement Strategist.
What is a typical day like for you?
No two days are alike, and I try to fit in as much as I can. My day starts with replenishing the bird feeders and walking my two dogs. After this, the schedule progresses in different directions that culminates into meetings, awareness workshops, helping and hand holding snakebite victim families (who call for assistance), curating a WhatsApp group of Doctors from 16 states of India that helps in Clinical Management of Snakebites, writing funding proposals and presenting via Skype or personal meetings. I also post issue-based messages, information, videos and images on social media, as a tool to propagate issue-based messages. Above all, my primary role is interacting with various volunteers across India who help with Community Awareness programs through our regional language educational videos on snakebite – Do’s and Don’ts.
How did you start off from working in a corporate background to working in snakebite? What was it that sparked that change in career?
My professional profile was in the financial world in the Regulatory Compliance space. My job entailed travel in India and other countries. About a decade ago, looking at the disparity in my country, I started feeling guilty about enjoying a good life. I didn’t know how to help people who didn’t even know they had fundamental rights. Thus, I did my Post Graduate Diploma in Human Rights in 2010 to understand the constitution of India. Around the same time, I attended a workshop at Rom Whitaker’s farm near Chennai. He talked about snakes, their habitats and ecology but he also highlighted the fact that approximately 50 000 people die of snakebites in India each year. This shocked me and I decided that was the cause I wanted to work towards. It was a road less traveled as compared to other causes, with more challenges but, it gave me complete satisfaction in doing what I envisioned doing.
What interested you about snakes?
I have been very fascinated by snakes right since my childhood. I remember touching a snake for the first time as a little child, when a snake charmer had slung a small sized python on my shoulder. Later that year I found a blind snake right outside our apartment (which I thought at that point in time to be a highly active earthworm). In later years, another memorable brush was when I volunteered to assist someone who had come with live snakes to conduct an awareness workshop. These incidents fueled my likeness for the reptile and in later years, I would jump at every opportunity to know more about serpents.
How long has it been since the Snakebite Healing and Education Society formed?
We have been working since 2014 and officially registered the trust in 2017.
What sort of challenges do you encounter?
This snakebite issue has many challenges, some of them are:
1. Victim families indulging in faith healing
2. A country that sees the highest number of bites, deaths and disabilities but does not treat snakebite as mainstream treatment
3. A broken health system for people from the disadvantaged backgrounds
4. A bureaucratic system which has no appetite for proactive work
Our work is completely self-motivated and it helps to have a group of doctors, activists and friends that inspire and support each other.
Are there many women working in snakebite in India and how can more women get involved?
Like many other fields, the number of women working on snakebite mitigation is definitely low. This kind of work where one encounters death and suffering, in far more about how passionate one is to work on the cause than about gender equality and equal opportunities.
How can we make herpetology more accessible to women?
Herpetology has always been an alpha male dominated occupation. We need a few good female role models to trigger the fascination among other females to roll up their sleeves and dive in.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career working with snakes?
Snakes are an under researched species. Hunger for research and making the world aware of natural history can definitely motivate young curious minds. In India we see many novice young individuals free handling venomous snakes and getting bitten. I wish people would respect snakes and not perform stunts which only add to the stress levels of these animals.
What are your biggest achievements working in this industry?
Saving lives! There is no other reason that fuels this madness.
During your career working in snakebite, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
Accumulation of knowledge and the right approach to work on any issue is a constant journey. I have been mentored by herpetologists, doctors, human right activists, teachers and ex-bureaucrats who form the advisory board of SHE-INDIA.
How does your family regard your career choice?
I speak on various forums about Human Trafficking, Anti-Terrorist Financing, Financial frauds, Snakebite Burden and other human rights issues, so, my family is accustomed to seeing my unconventional way of living life. My mother in particular realizes the impact of our work and does not forget to say a prayer while bidding me goodbye before I embark on any trip.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in this industry?
Funniest moment: This happened quite recently. Whenever I go to a new place, I check below the bed and other hidden places in the room before settling down. In this particular case, I could see something black in the corner of the room next to the sofa. The area was narrow so I gingerly pulled the sofa to have a closer look with the help of my torch. The black thing had some dust on it but didn’t move. On a closer look it turned out to be a pair of Polaroid sunglasses.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
We have been lucky to collaborate with many who believed in our vision & work and volunteered their expertise to help us but funding remains our biggest obstacle.
This field is male dominated and therefore there will always be a situation where you look at the brotherhood bonhomie from the side-lines. Instead of complaining about being left out, one should carve their own place. People who are focused about the cause will always be drawn to people who deliver. And when that happens, gender doesn’t matter.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
As people who have had access to education and a reasonably good upbringing, the only contributing factor for having a good life is our luck; of being born in a family that provided us opportunities and helped us grow as individuals. Most of the snakebite victims in India come from under-privileged backgrounds. A snakebite incident pushes them further into unimaginable misery and poverty. It is a life changing experience for most of the affected people. The loss of a loved ones, physical disability, loss of livelihood, financial debt, bonded labour and children out of school are some of the hardships faced by such families. It is up to us, the privileged ones, to work on ways to mitigate the problem and fight for the rights of people who are vulnerable.
Below is the link to the advocacy film created by Priyanka and her team at SHE-India
titled “The Dead Don’t Talk”
The above film work an award at the International Science Film Festival of India held in Kolkata from 6-8th Nov 2019. There were 33 films in the competitive category and 200 films were screened at the event. This validates the massive collaboration and efforts from many individuals & institutions across India who work on Snakebites and were a part of the film. Huge congratulations to Priyanka and her team!