With vast parts of rural Assam still deprived of modern health infrastructure, a private initiative is taking medical care by ship to the remote islands of the river Brahmaputra.
The Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), a trust established in 2000, has started the Ships of Hope in a Valley of Flood programme, under which ships carrying medical personnel are conducting camps in the islands of the Brahmaputra.
There are around 3,000 such islands inhabited by more than 2.5 million people. In most of these islands, there are no health centres, schools or power supply, Sanjoy Hazarika, a managing trustee of C-NES, said.
With two ships - Akha (meaning hope in Assamese) and Shehnaz, C-NES is conducting camps free of cost in the river islands in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Dhemaji districts of the state.
"We started with Dibrugarh in 2005, as we had a better base there. The project has been extended to two other districts. We hope to take our services to the lower Assam districts of Dhubri and Barpeta," Hazarika told IANS.
The health camps are now concentrating on immunisation and general check up facilities. They are also dealing with malaria and Japanese encephalitis cases.
As most of the people on these islands, comprising Assamese, Bengalis, Bihari migrants and tribals, are cattle herders the ships also carry a veterinary team each, which trains local to treat their animals.
A team of 25 personnel, which includes doctors and nurses of the local health department, is conducting 15 to 20 camps every month. It travels on the ships for around 7 to 10 days a month.
The initiative was started with an amount of $20,000 given by the World Bank to the project as an award for winning the WB India Development Marketplace competition in 2004.
Now, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), Indian Oil, Assam Oil Company, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and some local tea gardens have come forward with funds. The National Rural Health Mission has also shown keen interest in the project.
"We are also getting cooperation from the district administrations of all the districts where we are working," Hazarika said.
But C-NES is facing law and order hurdles as most of these areas are terror infested.
"The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) uses many of these islands for its activities. So, we have to be very careful. Whenever there is violence in any area, we withdraw our ships," Hazarika said.
"Reaching these villages during the floods is another major challenge," he added. Despite all the hindrances, the project has been well received by the people.
Now, C-NES is planning to launch another two ships to extend the services further. Akha alone has reached about 5,000 people including a large number of children and women.
"Ignorance and superstitions were challenges initially, but we have managed to get over them," he said.