A new floating hospital would visit the islands dotting Assam's Brahmaputra river at least once a month to render medical services. This has brought in a new ray of hope to these islanders who have been worried about their isolation.
Akha - a boat with medical personnel and supplies - is a unique door-to-door service for the poor inhabitants of the state's islands, including Charikhulia Chapori. Akha, which means 'hope' in Assamese, is the brainchild of the Association for India's Development (AID) - a student group - and the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), a New Delhi-based NGO.
The NGO was especially sensitive to the vulnerability of those who lived in the rural islands, faraway from modern conveniences, including hospitals with sophisticated equipment.
'Technologically speaking, it is a specially made boat for this purpose. It is also equipped to deal with emergency situations like floods,' said Sanjoy Hazarika, C-NES member and the driving force behind the one-year-old project.
'It has space for on-board treatment of basic health problems and can even take a few emergency cases back to the nearest referral or district hospital whenever needed,' Hazarika, a New Delhi-based columnist and community activist, told IANS.
Akha can accommodate health personnel and professionals. 'This vessel can be turned into a classroom to train paramedics during winters when the water level is too shallow to set sail,' Hazarika added. This specialised boat was funded by prize money from a World Bank competition won by C-NES volunteers and a group of grass-root boat-builders in 2004.
With the India Country-level Development Marketplace award of $20,000 (Rs.900,000), Hazarika and other C-NES workers could realise their dream of treating the unreachable under-privileged sections of the state.
Primarily used as a documentation and health campaign vehicle during the lean season, the boat is a prototype built locally but with more powerful engines to help it negotiate its way through the turbulent Brahmaputra waters during floods.
The Assam Medical College at Dibrugarh provides the medical staff for regular camps health-camps to be undertaken by Akha while the district administration supplies the fuel for such missions. Oil India Ltd also allows a grant as Akha's maintenance expenditure.
The remoteness of the areas in which Akha operates is evident by the fact that hardly any government scheme ever reaches these places and the elected representatives have no time to visit them.
'The people whom Akha looks after not only experience nature's fury every year in the form of devastating floods but are also deprived of the minimum treatment they deserve as human beings and as citizens of this country,' said Hazarika.
Ironically, people living in these 'chaporis', as riverine islands are called in Assamese, are confused as to which constituency or district they belong to as no proper demarcation has been identified yet. Illiteracy is endemic in these 'chaporis' and the definition of life is punctuated by mere birth and death.
Akha often puts down anchor in Charikhulia Chapori of Dibrugarh district to relieve a population that frequently suffers from anaemia, gastritis, respiratory infections, diarrhoea, worm infections and malnutrition.
'Akha camps are important as we don't have a dispensary or a public health centre,' said Basanti Basumatary, a resident of Charikhulia Chapori. 'Earlier, we used to take patients to 'guwala dactor' (quack),' she added.