C-NES’ Boat Clinics won a certificate of appreciation from the Government of Assam’s Health and Family Welfare Department for dedicated and selfless service to the most marginalized, impoverished communities inhabiting the Brahmaputra river islands during the Covid 19 pandemic. The award was handed over by the state Health Minister.
Boat Clinic in Covid Times
The frontline health workers from the 15 Boat Clinic units have been working with dedication and commitment in the fight to prevent COVID-19 in the river islands since the outbreak of the pandemic and completing the duty entrusted by the district health administration. As frontline warriors, they have been conducting regular awareness sessions and reminding communities to maintain physical distance, follow handwashing practices and wear masks at all times. The Clinics are in forefront of providing relief to island dwellers amid lockdown apart from providing preliminary check-ups. During the first phase, villagers were informed about the importance of maintaining social distancing, regular and proper handwashing, the need of wearing a mask, first signs/symptoms when health assistance should be sought, what coronavirus is all about and how it can spread. Communities were also made to understand that in order to break the chain or contain the infection from spreading, all responsible citizens should remain inside their homes (especially vulnerable groups like pregnant women, children below 10 years and the elderly).
During the beginning of the outbreak, island villagers could not understand what the disease was all about. “It was only after the Boat clinics provided constant awareness sessions by conducting home visits that a distinct behavioural change was noticed. Regular awareness was given on the need to maintain physical distance, washing hands and use of masks” says Riturekha Baruah, District Programme Officer (DPO), Majuli Boat Clinic.
Roton Mili from Gopal chuk sapori of Majuli, worked as a wage labour in Arunachal Pradesh. Upon arriving home he did not want to follow covid rules and maintain home quarantine. He was circulating everywhere near his neighbourhood. ASHA Rumi Doley informed the health team of Majuli Boat Clinic. Immediately community worker Jadumoni Hazarika from the health team reached his home for counselling and giving him basic awareness of the pandemic. He successfully convinced Mili to maintain physical isolation for his community and his own safety. Similarly, the health team has been able to generate a lot of awareness on Covid 19among the island dwellers under their health service
The second wave of covid 19 pandemic severely affected the daily life of the char/sapori people. The problem is worsening every day as they have not been able to go outside for work due to restrictions imposed by the government. To add to it, many misconceptions and rumours prevail among them. Their isolation, insular location, low literacy rates and poor economic conditions have led to their unwillingness to cooperate with health workers attempts at getting vaccinated and maintaining covid precaution though new cases are being detected. The long distances to reach the nearest health centre is another factor. In such situations, the Boat clinic team has been continuously mobilising the island dwellers and taking steps to prevent any pandemic outbreak.
The Boat clinic with the help of District Health Society, Bongaigaon organized several vaccination camps near the char areas and involved stakeholders like village leaders, local media, PRI members, school teachers, ASHAs and AWWs. On the first day, 22nd June/2021 it was held at Iswarjari MV school under Boitamari Bphc of Bongaigaon district. Large number of people gathered and queued up patiently. 220 were fully vaccinated.
30th July 2021- The Lakhimpur Boat Clinic team on way to Covid vaccination camps organized in association with Bihpuria BPHC and Bhagora MPHC. The camps were held at Pavobhabhekeli and Kaniajan villages with a target to vaccinate 400 island dwellers.
The Nalbari Boat Clinic team led by DPO Parvez Ahmed on way to a health camp on 3 rd August at Bhangnamai island village. Joint Director Health Services Nalbari, Dr. Umesh Phangcho, Dr. Madhu Ram Baishya, SDM and HO, headquarters, and Dr. Kailash Kr. Deka SDM &H O, Epidemic, accompanied the team.
A Medical Officer recollects his experiences with the Boat Clinic
It was the year 2005, when a newspaper article interested me, ‘Coming up: Boat Clinic to serve the underprivileged and unreachable people of the small islands of the mighty Brahma-putra, the only masculine river, in Assam, India.’ I was posted in Dhansiri, Karbi Anglong then and was nearing my retirement age. Never heard, never seen, I just wondered how or what exactly will this Boat Clinic be like.
Fast forward to 2021, today, and here I am sitting on our Boat with our team proudly writing about S B Akha- our Dibrugarh Boat Clinic Unit. It’s been 8 years since I joined in the year 2013.
We, the Boat Clinic Dibrugarh Unit are a team of around 10 – 15 members and we have to cater to the people of around 22 small islands of Brahmaputra. Other than the smallest river island, Umananda (also known as peacock island, Guwahati, Assam) and largest river island Mahuli (Jorhat, Assam) there are many other small islands too found where people live. The people who live in these islands are not connected to the mainland and hence it becomes very difficult for them to avail regular facilities and services.v We, the Boat Clinics reach out to these people to provide basic medical facilities like regular immunization of children and pregnant women, RI, pre-natal and post-natal care, regular health check-up of all age groups, organise health awareness camps of preventable diseases, water borne diseases, tuberculosis, AIDS and very recently Covid 19 too.
When I say Brahmaputra, I am talking about a river which originates from the Kailash Range of the Himalayas, just south of lake Konggyu Tso. Its source is in Kanglung Kung Glacier. During the dry season we walk for kilometres carrying all the medicines, vaccines, vaccine storage apparatus, log books, small instruments and during the monsoon though we do not have to carry any of these but have to escape near fatal incidents like strong currents, sudden rise in water level, waves, etc. Due to the close proximity of the river to the main town of Dibrugarh, winters are very bitter so I suppose you all can imagine how cold it will be to stay on the boat.
Now, the question is with such difficulty, why we do it?
We have been there and we will be there for those people. Our Boat too is very rightly named ‘AKHA’ meaning HOPE. We sail taking with us Hope. Because those people are waiting for us in rain, sun and storm. Though they wait for the Boat to arrive but they actually wait for their only hope for the little medical service that they get and they have no complains but only gratitude.
And Denzel Washington very rightly said, that:
“The most selfish thing you can do in this world is to help someone else. Why selfish? Because of the gratification, the good feeling, the satisfaction that comes back to you from helping others cannot be measured or compared to anything.”
We have end number of real incidents that can be shared which will only seem like adventurous stories out of adventure series, and my dear readers, this one instance will not be enough.
At times, our boat gets stuck in the middle of the river, at times we have to get-off on unknown unnamed islands cause our circumstances are such that it cannot be predicted. Fog, sudden rise in water level, strong currents, flood, big boat, small boat everything has posed hurdles.
Even Boat Akha, our Hope, has been lying useless since a year now and for the time being we were given the boat of Dhemaji District named S B Shehnaz. Our team of 10-15 people with Doctor, Nurses, Pharmacist, Cook, Helper, Boatman, etc who travel to these islands get the bare minimum facilities like toilets, separate rooms for female nurses, etc in these boats which helps us with our stay as well as our safety for around 5 days to a week sometimes, but Shehnaz too has been out of order since last three months and thus we have been hiring private boats to reach to the people. These private or country made boats (as they are regularly called) though do not have the bare minimum facility of washrooms or even kitchens to cook forget about sleeping. But, ‘we get dirty, so our society remains clean. That’s the mission. Call of duty.’ Our female nurses have to manage their stay with the local people, the males on the other hand are divided by one or two staying under tent, another on the boat and others in some schools nearby.
And now while I am writing this, on duty for a week travelling by boat, by foot, let me share last night’s incident. When our team went off to sleep the water level was low, and our boat was very securely anchored on the bank. Come morning and the water level has risen almost 5-7 ft. Luckily, nobody was sleeping under the tent the other night. This happened in the Brahmaputra saporis of Aichung and Karmichuk. Life of these people are so unpredictable. They have a unique bond with this mighty river because during normal circumstances people would leave everything behind and move to safe places but they don’t. We on the other hand feel blessed and happy to be back home safe and sound among our loved ones. And while sharing the trip’s incidents with family and friends we feel really proud of the fact that we have been able to help a few, save a few in whatever little way we could.
That is life on a Boat Clinic!! Which, long ago before joining I wondered how or what will this Boat Clinic be like. Now, even with all the unpredictability of nature and other circumstances still, given a chance I and my Dibrugarh Boat Clinic Team would always want to serve these people from the Saporis. Because we are selfish now, for the love, gratification, for the hope that we carry with us and we try our best never to miss any immunization date for what so ever reason. Every life matters, every life is precious.
Dr. J.K. Deori
MO/DPO, I/C, Boat Clinic,
Lakhimpur Boat on Covid duty covered by media: https://public.app/video/sp_x94xkqj24rg66 on 31 st July
Radio Brahmaputra on 3rd August by The Assam Tribune:
Boat clinics breathe life into char islands during Covid by TOI on 6th August: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/boat-clinics-breathe-life-into-char-islands-duringcovid/articleshow/85080039.cms
Story from Dhemaji
August 6, 2021: 74-year-old Togori Barman is a resident of the Dhemaji district’s remote Badalpur Barman island village. She has been hypertensive for the past over ten years and has never visited any other health care institute other than the boat clinic health camp since 2008. She waits enthusiastically every month for the Dhemaji boat health team to arrive at her island village. Her condition has been stable as she has been under regular medication and under the health team’s care. She gets her regular medicines from the team. She is unwilling to visit any health centre and expresses her gratitude to the team every time they meet her. The team reminds her to take her medication timely. She says she is healthy and alive only due to the boat clinic.
Model Village Program (MVP)
C-NES and the Bengaluru based SELCO Foundation worked together on a Model Village Program (MVP) from 15th October 2019 to 31 st March 2021. The three selected remote villages- all located under Majuli district in upper Assam were Kartik Sapori , Mekahi Sapori and Salmora. The technical partner in the project was ERES Pvt Ltd. Amongst the targets of the MVP were
- Setting up two Smart Anganwadi Centres (AWC) at Kartik and Mekahi Saporis.
- Setting up of Lok Sewa Kendra (LSK) for Kartik and Mekahi sapori villages.
- Installation of two solar powered sewing machines each at Kartik sapori & Mekahi sapori village.
- Two existing local mechanized boats of Kartik and Mekahi sapori to be upgraded with solar powered lighting system. This would help villagers to travel on the boat during any emergency at night.
- Transformation of nearest State Dispensary, Ownamukh to 4KW Solar Powered Model Dispensary.
- Installation of 10 solar street lights each (15 watt) at Kartik sapori and Mekahi Sapori villages.
- Service camp for repairing the non functional existing Solar home Lights at Kartik and Mekahi sapori
- Solar powered Pottery wheel, blunger and pugmil to be installed at Salmora village and transforming the village into a Model Pottery Village.
Bandhs and curfew imposed in Assam because CAA related protests led to work coming to a standstill. This continued till the end of December 2019 and technical teams were not able to visit the sites affecting the progress of field work. The entire progress of work was e again affected since the 22nd of March 2020, due to the pandemic and measures taken by the government to contain the spread of the virus with complete lockdown and curb on the movement of citizens.
The first target was to set up service camps for fixing and repairing the existing solar lights at Kartik and Mekahi saporis. Existing solar home lights were checked and repaired. Discussions and work to establish the Smart AWC in Kartik and Mekahi sapori were started and the sites assessed. Discussions with Joint Director of Health Services of Jorhat for establishing the Model State Dispensary was initiated. Planning for setting up the Lok Sewa Kendra and for installing Solar Sewing machines at Kartik sapori and Mekahi sapori was also started. Finally the site to set up a solar pottery machine for demonstration at Salmora village was finalized. Assessment and discussion was also done on few local mechanized boats of Kartik and Mekahi sapori for installation of solar energy lighting system.
The pandemic created fear among the river island villagers of Majuli area. It was difficult for people to be confined to their homes and the village with the nationwide lockdown. Livelihood, Communication, Education, Health was hit.
In Kartik and Mekahi sapori, nearly everyone is dependent on agriculture, dairy product, horticulture and animal husbandry. The production of vegetables is very good in these areas as the land is fertile. Most of the vegetables are supplied to markets in Jorhat and neighboring towns from these island villages. The pandemic brought financial hardship to the inhabitants as they were not able to sell their produce in the local markets and traders/middle men from the towns also could not come to the village to buy the vegetable and other products directly.
Salmora village, in Upper Majuli, the third village under MVP is a riverine village and has direct road connection with Majuli district head quarter. Salmora is also connected by waterways with Jorhat district on the south. The village has a population of 634 persons in 152 households, some of the oldest inhabitants of Majuli. After closure of ferry service due to the lockdown, people from Salmora village faced many difficulties as businesses were completely stopped. The village is dependent on producing pottery items and boat building, a legacy since the Ahom era. The pottery culture is facing big challenge due to the present pandemic situation. More than ten lakh pottery items are stored in the village because it is not possible for the villager to go out for business-purpose. There is very little agricultural activity on a commercial basis as annual floods and erosion hamper agricultural crops.
The MVP has benefited and influenced the three communities where it has been implemented. The villagers are optimistic that the project will bring a change in community behaviour and will develop the villages. The Lok Sewa Kendra will help the villagers, especially students in gathering information and accomplish computer work. LSK will also provide people with the opportunity to fulfil a number of online work and other online requirements from the village itself. The street light in the village is providing women and children a safe environment even after sunset. Solar lighted boats had become a lifeline for the villagers in times of medical emergency. The much-needed confidence of travelling during night hours on the river especially for patients and pregnant women is now available.
There has been a remarkable reduction in agricultural crop damage from wild elephants invading their agricultural land after the installation of the Elephant repellent. Solar Sewing machine have provided few women entrepreneurs the opportunity to increase their income by producing more items in a lesser amount of time. Salmora village women who had been traditionally producing pottery items for ages without using a wheel has now been trained to use the solar-powered pottery wheel and increase their production. The women who attended the trainings have also been taught to design and develop other items which have demand in the market in the state and outside the state. The newly constructed Anganwadi Centre into a Smart Anganwadi Centre will motivate and benefit the children of Kartik Village. The Smart AWC will have digital learning tools resulting in more interactive learning and improved retention of children. It will also be a model for replication by the Social Welfare Department of the state government in the future. Model Village Program will definitely give good environment and opportunity for all round development of rural communities. It will motivate young people to adopt renewable energy for better opportunities and healthier future for generations to come. MVP will be a model which will attract the concerned government departments for adoption under the village development plan.
A feast being arranged on January 9, 2021 by the Radio Brahmaputra listeners of Nalbari village in Dhemaji district on the arrival of Radio Brahmaputra workers Pinku Gohain and Kalyan Samwa.
After reopening of schools in January 2021, students from different tea gardens and villages, participating in Radio Brahmaputra’s evening broadcast of school learning programme helped by volunteers.
50 episodes of radio study programme were published by Radio Brahmaputra in collaboration with Dibrugarh District Administration, Dibruagarh District Education Department, UNICEF-Assam for students deprived of regular education during Covid-19 and lockdown. With this, the radio program was dedicated to taking the radio programme to the villages, tea gardens and Sar-chapari areas along with the teachers of various government schools who participated in the radio programs at the office of Radio Brahmaputra on 5 February 2021 A program was organized to thank the education friends of Brahmaputra. Additional Commissioner of Dibrugarh district Nandita Barua participated in this program, congratulating the teachers and education friends, along with the research report titled ′′ Online Education during COVID-19 ′′ published by UNICEF, Assam and Radio Brahmaputra and the report was published in Dibruagarh The district administration is given. The program UNICEF Assam Education Specialist Mr. Saya Kunwar, Mr. Suresh Parmar, C4D Officer, UNICEF Asom and Mr. Gitali Kakati, SBCC Consultant, UNICEF Assam joins through online media and expresses their opinion.