The man who brought hope to the river islands is Sanjoy Hazarika, a human rights activist and former journalist who once worked with the New York Times.
Guwahati, September 23— “We heard about the tragic story of a young woman who died in childbirth because she couldn’t get to the hospital in time. And this was in winter when it is cold and damp. The next morning they got the ferry but she didn’t make it. She died,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, Founder and Managing Trustee, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research.
The sorrowful incident deeply moved the human rights activist and former journalist Sanjoy. He started thinking about the ways to bring healthcare to lakhs of inhabitants of river islands in Assam. Enacting Mahatma Gandhi’s famous call “In a gentle way, you can shake the world,” he came up with the idea about boat clinics.
This video documentary by Pluc TV/South Asia Monitor is part of Positive Journalism Feature supported by the Frank Islam Foundation. The documentary highlights how boat clinics are working as health helpline for lakhs of people living on river islands in Assam.
The mighty river Brahamputra flows through the Northeast Indian state of Assam and has 2500 islands that make access to modern healthcare difficult for their three million inhabitants. The river is known for its merciless flooding that submerges and erodes large parts of the state year after year. Construction of permanent healthcare facilities in these parts is almost impossible due to the recurring floods. Ferrying in hope are the unique boat clinics of Assam which have become the primary access to healthcare facilities for the people of the Saporis or river islands. And the man who brought hope to the islands is a human rights’ activist and former journalist who once worked with the New York Times.
“I had the idea of a ship of hope in the valley of floods, instead of people going to the service, you take the service there. It wouldn’t be a ship but a country boat which is locally designed and built. I researched on the problems of the islands and the health problems in Assam. Everybody in Assam says women have equality and great strength and so on. And then you look at the figures which show that Assam has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the country,” says Sanjoy Hazarika.
Healthcare workers deployed on the boat clinics explain the problems of the people and how the floating health helpline has become important for them.
Jadumoni Hazarika, a community worker says: “Majuli is the largest river island and is pretty well-known. But many people don’t know about these remote islands where we work.”
Assam’s boat clinics serve the remotest islands along the river. A total of 15 clinics serve the 13 districts of the state.
Juli Phukan, an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), says: “At the boat clinic, we regularly check ante-natal cases, post-natal cases, routine immunization and health camps. A pregnant woman is registered and we give mandatory four-visit checkups to them between the first, second and third semester.”
Some of medical staffers at boat clinic
These boat clinics are a private-public partnership between the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) and National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Government of Assam. The clinics with 16 member staff each provide immunisation to children, pregnant women and new mothers. It also treats vulnerable adult groups and works on creating awareness on family planning.
Gita Mili, an ASHA health worker, says: “It is difficult to take pregnant women for an ultrasound by crossing the river because there is no machine here. If boat services, that are provided by the local transportation, are stopped, we cannot go. But it has been a great help that boat clinic visits us every month to our island.”
Dr Deep Shankar Saikia, doctor in-charge of a Boat Clinic, says: “I am working as a medical officer in the boat clinic in Jorhat district for two years. We have seen that island living people are prone to water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, skin disease. We give priority to ante-natal care, post-natal care, immunization etc. During the post-natal checkup, newborn babies are also screened. We find some cases of pregnancy-induced hypertension. We try our best to solve and treat most cases here and we refer some of the critical cases to proper hospitals.”
Dr Deep Shankar Saikia
These floating clinics have been treating about 20,000 patients each month. For people living in the riverline villages of Assam, the boat clinics continue to be a lifeline. For a state known globally for its tea and one-horned rhinos, these boat clinics may add yet one more feature to the Northeastern state’s uniqueness.
Gautam Buddha had said: “Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, even so, let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings.”