During the floods in Chennai in 2015, a tweet by a concerned netizen described ground reality of those days. “Should we simply rent a boat for a week?” It was a sight to witness boats rescuing people stranded in the inundated city. But even in the 21st century, there are many places in India where boats are the only means of connectivity. The Brahmaputra that flows over 891 km through Assam has over 2.5 million people living on 2,500 islands. For centuries, the river has been a source of life and the cause of death for the people there. In the 2017 floods, the death toll stood at 112, and 33 lakh people were affected across 25 districts.
The availability of doctors in India stands at 0.7 per 1,000 people. Natives of these islands that shift continuously over the braiding river—chars or saporis as they are locally called—think that they need doctors only during floods. Despite the geographical challenges, writer-journalist Sanjoy Hazarika set afloat the first boat clinic ‘AKHA’—the ship of hope in a valley of floods, in May 2005. The wooden boat—65-foot in length and 15-foot in width—with space for an OPD, laboratory, cabins for doctors and nurses, kitchen, toilets, water supply, and a generator set was completed after receiving award money of $20,000 from the World Bank’s India Marketplace in 2004.
The Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), which runs the unique Boat Clinic health initiative supported by the Assam government’s National Health Mission, was founded by Hazarika in 2000. Hazarika, who was shooting a documentary in the area, was deeply affected when he heard about the death of a pregnant woman. “That’s when I resolved to take services to people’s doorstep,” he says.
Today, 15 boat clinics are operating in 13 districts of Assam, with 235 dedicated people taking sustained quality healthcare to the isolated population. Communication officer at C-NES Bhaswati Goswami elaborates, “The thrust of the programme is to provide healthcare services, especially to mothers and children, apart from curative and preventive healthcare.”
Routine immunisation of children and pregnant women, Vitamin A supplementation, pulse polio immunisation, Japanese encephalitis vaccination, general health checkups, laboratory investigation and family planning activities are being done by every boat clinic on a regular-basis. A total of 24 camps are planned every month. The boats having night stay facilities go for trips of 3-8 days at a stretch.
Asked to shed light on challenges, both Goswami and Hazarika talk primarily about delay in disbursal of funds by the government. “The organisation is evolving and learning to cope with such problems,” says Hazarika. In November, the Lakhimpur Boat Clinic walked over three km to the interiors of one of the islands off the Subansiri riverbank to give Vitamin A supplements to children.
Facilities: Curative care, minor surgeries, reproductive and child care, family plan and basic laboratory services
Health camps conducted 23,016
General Health Checkup 17.2 lakh
Routine Immunisation 2 lakh
Ante Natal Care 1.1 lakh
Till March 31, 2017
On an average 24,000 people are treated every month in the districts