Thirteen years ago this month, a team of trekkers were preparing for an arduous task of walking the length of the country – from Trashigang to Changlimethang in Thimphu.

They were not adventurers. The then health and education minister Sangay Ngedup, the leader of the team and the brainchild of the famous Move for Health Walk wanted to walk for a purpose. They successfully completed the walk in the planned 15 days despite the physical challenge, discomforts and risks.

More than the walk, Bhutan succeeded in starting a noble initiative, creating the Bhutan Health Trust Fund. At the end of the walk, Bhutanese from all walks of lives, friends of Bhutan and well wishers contributed USD 2 million to the Fund. The target was USD 24 million.

Bhutanese will never forget the initiative and the mentor of the initiative, Lyonpodep Sangay Ngedup. The former minister is duly recognised for his contribution by receiving the World Health Organisation’s excellence in public health award yesterday. The award was for initiating “path breaking interventions that helped improve the health and well-being of the people.”

The Health Trust Fund was established to ensure the future provision of preventive and curative health services to the people, independent of the government or donor funding. The Fund is now close to its target.

Bhutanese are fortunate that the wise policy of our successive Kings have been to look into the welfare of the people. Health is one area where we are one of the few countries in the world where the people still enjoy free health care including referrals. Although some of us are paying a small amount as health contribution, it was out of compassion for the larger rural majority that His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo insisted on free health services.

With the health ministry coming under immense pressure from increasing cases of non-communicable or lifestyle diseases, including free referrals, it would become more challenging to provide free basic health care for all times to come. It is here that the Health Trust Fund would ensure that the majority who cannot afford would continue to receive basic free health care, especially vaccines and essential drugs.

Most of us who visit the hospital and get free treatment and medication will not know where the funds are coming from. In most countries, poor people suffer because they cannot afford even basic health care. We should remember that the pills and tablets we receive and often waste come at a huge cost.

Tired and famished on his second day of the walk on September 26, 2002 above Kurizampa, lyonpodep Sangay Ngedup realised he was not prepared. He had covered only 110 kilometres. He kept walking and “wanted to walk even it kills me”. He had committed to a cause and completed it.

We will not realise the benefits of such an initiative unless we feel the pinch.