On the saporis or river islands of Assam that are inundated with floods every time the mighty Brahmaputra unleashes its fury, life is a constant struggle against disease and deprivation. Some 30 lakh people live in 2300 remote, floating villages on the Brahmaputra in Upper Assam. Here, there are no functional anganwadis, no health centres, no schools, no power, not even drinking water. Till recently, immunization, Antenatal Care (ANC), disease management, and treatment were all unheard of. Then in 2005 the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research intervened. They partnered with NRHM (National Rural Health Mission), UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), and the government of Assam, to start Akha (meaning hope in Assamese) – a 22-metre long, four-metre wide ship that carries hope and health care to 10000 forgotten people in Tinsukhia, Dhemaji, and Dibrugarh districts of Upper Assam. The 120 hp powered Akha has an Out Patient Department (OPD) room, cabins for medical staff and ship crew, medicine storage space, a kitchen, two toilet cum bathrooms, and a general store. A generator set and 200 litre water reservoir are also installed to ensure that the medical team that travels to the saporis has adequate power and water supply.
The idea behind Akha is simple – use the river to tackle the problems and challenges created by it. Doctors and ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) who are unwilling and unable to survive on these remote islands, live on this ship stocked with medicine and other supplies and hold health camps on the saporis. They immunize, treat, provide medicines, and advise people on preventive measures. They even take critically ill patients to the nearest health centre in Dibrugarh.
In less than two years, Akha has provided succour to many. If we can upscale this innovative intervention under NRHM, health care will no longer be a distant reality for the people living on this highly volatile river. It can be upscaled to include a hospital ship with diagnostic facilities, in patient ward and operation theatre. Then health care would become truly inclusive.