Around five years back, two women set out on a journey towards understanding India just a little better. Their forays into the known, and often unknown, parts of the country revealed to them what they eventually thought represented the ‘real’ India. This excerpt from the book, Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India, written by Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda, takes readers to a remote district in the northeastern state of Assam, where amidst a broken down healthcare system, the duo met a committed teacher-cum-anganwadi worker who was determined to speak up for her deprived young students.
Darrang district is seventy km from the state capital. After about an hour’s drive from Mangaldoi on broken country roads, our cars came to a halt in front of the Bajnapathar Community Health Centre. This CHC was five years old, with a thirty-bed capacity. At noon, when we reached, it was empty and locked. As we waited for some staff to turn up we met two brothers, Kushal and Milan Rajbanshi, who lived next door to the CHC.
‘Where is everybody?’ we asked.
‘Didi, the Medical Officer (MO) was transferred six months ago. Since then, this hospital has been khallas (over). The last doctor they gave us was an ayurvaid (Ayurvedic practitioner), who was transferred along with the MO. Three months ago, the nurse, too, was transferred.’
‘What do you do when you fall ill?’
‘Sometimes a nurse didi comes here from Guwahati but most of the time we have to go there. It’s a one-hour journey by boat. Or we go to a pharmacy ten km away. When the doctor comes, he charges a Rs 20 flat fee for injections, fever, cuts, and wounds.’
We turned back to the CHC. Unlike in other places where the CHCs we had seen were little more than a skeletal structures, Bajnapathar had a proper building. But the windows were boarded up and a lock hung on the front door. A windowpane was broken, so Milan thrust his hand in and opened the door. Inside, there were empty beds all around. Some equipment was visible in the piles of trash. We wondered if someone was using the place as a shelter at night. A woman walked up. ‘I am Malati Rajbanshi,’ she said. (The entire village was made up of the Rajbanshi tribe.) She told us that she had never heard of any deliveries taking place at this centre. Deliveries were conducted in the village by family dais (midwives). She had never heard of ASHAs or community health workers, and looked blank when we asked about the Janani Suraksha Yojna.
The Rajbanshi of the village knew nothing about the National Rural Health Mission. We compared this ground reality with the official version given to us at our meetings. Examples like Darrang were considered anecdotal evidence. When questioned by us the officials averred that this was a case of ‘being at the wrong place at the wrong time’! Though we had been witness to too many such anecdotes, we were not able to stitch individual pieces into a compelling argument.
Having sampled the health infrastructure of Darrang, we moved to the village anganwadi centre. It was a small bamboo hut. There was a hand pump outside but we were told that the water was not potable because of its high iron content. A middle-aged woman, Nitimoni Devi, was the supervisor of twenty-eight different anganwadi centres. She said her biggest worry was the lack of rations with which she could feed the children ‘Didi, at Bajnapathar AWC, they have received no food for one whole year, since February 2007. In fact, none of the centres I supervise has received rations since November 2007. It is heartbreaking to see the kids starving, and yet I can do no more than register a complaint at the district level.’
We had seen enough to realize that condition in Assam (among other states) would ensure that we remain far from our own monitorable targets. Standing under the hot March sun, the road to rural health appeared long and arduous; nothing much might happen in the short term of our tenure unless we redoubled our efforts. Just as we were getting into the car with these thoughts, someone blocked our way. A slender, bespectacled young woman was standing in front of our sarkari Ambassador on the dusty road. She was out of breath. ‘Miss Jili Das,’ she said holding out her hand. ‘I heard about your visit and have cycled three km from the Suktaguri Anganwadi No. 1. I had to meet you.’
Jili lived with her father, Binod Das, in the village of Khalikai Gandhiyapathar. She had studied in northern Guwahati, passed the higher secondary exam, and taught in a lower primary school for one year. Then she was appointed as an anganwadi worker and sent here. For one year she had received no food for the children. ‘The village where I work is very poor, and a flood-prone area. Most of the 6,000 people there are migrant Muslims. Parents work as migrant labour and leave the children with me. Families are large as no sterilization can be carried out. People think they will incur Allah’s wrath if they do so. We have only two AWCs. We need at least two more. We need toilets. There are a lot of skin diseases in our area. I have received no de-worming tablets for two years. I go from house to house and meet pregnant women but I have no rations to give them. I can only give them iron tablets which I get from the ANM. Even our village school has not received any food or books this year. It is so hard to watch the kids study on empty stomachs. Please help me.’ The sweat from her forehead made tracks down her face as she looked at us with desperation in her eyes.
‘What about you?’ Do you get your salary?’
She bowed her head. ‘No I haven’t received anything for four months.’
As we looked at this frail-looking girl standing before us, we realized that in her grit and humility there was still hope for this country. She was a living symbol of these lines of the poet Sahir Ludhianvi which were written to honour hope:
Jab ambar jhoom ke naache ga aur dharti naghme gaayegi
Voh subah kabhi toh aayegi
When the sky will break into a dance and the earth into song
That dawn will one day break