The water doctors of Sunderbans
On board MV Dominique, the boat that takes medicare to remote parts of south-east Bengal, thanks to Lapierre's The City of Joy Foundation.
Help at hand: A patient being carried for X-ray to the MV Dominique at Chota Sahera village. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH
HIGH tide or low, five days a week, through the seasons, MV Dominique the words "City of Joy Mobile Boat Dispensary" emblazoned in red on its keel meanders at an average speed of 15 nautical miles per hour, up and down the rivers, crisscrossing the Sunderbans, at the south-eastern tip of West Bengal, dodging the bobbing buoys fastened on to which are hundreds of meters of fishing nets submerged in the rippling, salty waters.
Waiting on the sun-parched banks of Sardarpara, on one of the 54 islands having human settlements and separated from each other by a network of estuaries, rivers and creeks that comprise the world's largest delta, is a knot of people waiting to board the launch on which a doctor and his team of medical assistants will examine them, giving the medicine they might need free of cost, and arranging for their pathological tests in the laboratory and X-ray in separate cubicles on the lower deck.
Close to the jetties where the launch drops anchor are thatched-roof mud huts the local people refer to as the "clinic" where, on fixed days of the week, those with health complaints queue up, awaiting their turn to be diagnosed and treated once the doctor and his assistants stride ashore. One such clinic close to the banks of the river on Bhandarkhali island is shared by a local astrologer who uses it as his centre of call.
Dominique Lapierre, the celebrated author of City of Joy and Freedom at Midnight, is the pioneer behind the unique health project that aims at reaching medicare to those in remote and inaccessible villages, nestled within the world's largest mangrove forests and swamps. The Sunderbans and its people are the subjects of his next book, on which he plans to start work this winter.
On February 16, "Dada" as Lapierre is known to many of the villagers, was there at a health camp on the distant island of Chota Sahera, where 4,800 villagers were treated by a team of 30 doctors within a span of seven hours. "Let not any patient die in the Sunderbans for want of treatment," he exhorted the camp organisers, the Southern Health Improvement Samity (SHIS), a non-governmental organisation which is the executing agency of the author's City of Joy Foundation that sponsors the "mobile dispensaries" operating in the delta.
The purring of its motor ceases as MV Dominique berths itself by the side of an improvised jetty along the slushy banks of Chota Sahera. The crowd of patients outside the local gram panchayat office that has been converted into a health clinic grows by the hour, as Dr. Raifur Rahman and his assistants cross the gangway and step ashore. It is two p.m.; the queue of patients began forming at nine a.m., many having trekked long distances while others had to cross the Dasa river in small mechanised boats to arrive at the island's 13-km long shifting shore-line. Evening would have fallen before the last of the patients leave.
They include 80-year-old Shyam Sardar, who has been carried in a hammock fastened to a wooden pole held by two men. He is advised to have a fresh X-ray of his chest done and will have to be brought into the launch. Once there he will be taken to the lower deck and asked to lie on a jute mat on the floor as the X-ray machine is lowered close to his chest and the 5KV transformer that runs it put into operation. A dripping X-ray plate is ready within 10 minutes for him to carry back to Dr. Rahman .
MV Dominique spends on an average five hours a day, slicing through the waters, cruising from one island to another as do the three other launches doing the rounds in other parts of the Sunderbans in choppier waters. "We have been able to reach out to about one million of the 2.5 million villagers of the region, our boats touching the shores of 30 out of the 54 islands," says M.A. Wohab, Director, SHIS.
The challenges are many; nature's vagaries, particularly during the monsoon when storms make movement across the waters difficult and the waters overspill the embankments to inundate whole villages during high tide. Also to be countered is the time-worn collective belief in witchcraft, exorcists and quacks which, most frequently, only acerbates the condition of a patient because of the disease not being treated on time.
"Then there is the sheer apathy of the government health workers towards the needs of the local people, not to talk of grinding poverty and its debilitating effects on health and of the salinity of the waters which results in the region's people suffering from a high incidence of skin and fungal infection", says Mr. Wohab. "Our job is to reach the people before the sick can reach us", he adds.
This is the first article for India Beats, our feature on the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.
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