Solar-powered boat clinics in flood-ravaged Assam deliver essential healthcare

Chandrani Sinha July 25, 2017

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In the flood-ravaged areas surrounding the Brahmaputra river in Assam, equipping boat clinics with solar panels has given a shot in the arm to the vision of bringing healthcare within everyone’s reach.

Along the river’s path lie about 2,500 river islands, bereft of development and inhabited by small farmers and tribals. Every year when the river overflows in monsoon, more than 25 lakh people living on these islands bear the brunt of deluge. Boat clinics have been around since 2005, equipped with an out-patient department, labs, pharmacies and other first-line health services. Starting this May, some of them are running on solar power, a switch that has improved healthcare delivery.

Boat clinics have been around since 2005, equipped with an out-patient department, labs, pharmacies and other first-line health services. Image: Chandrani Sinha

Assam has 15 floating clinics serving the inhabitants of river islands in 32 villages of 13 districts. In May, solar panels were affixed on the roof of five of them, enabling them to operate 24×7, if need be. Earlier, they’d have to close their operations as the daylight faded.

In 2016, C-NES signed an agreement with Bengaluru-based SELCO Foundation, started by Magsaysay Award winner Harish Hande, to power these clinics with solar energy.  

Apu Bora, 27, a farmer living on one of the river islands Major Sapori — near the world-famous Majuli river island, the assembly constituency of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal — was pleasantly surprised to find the mobile clinic open in the evening when he visited it in desperation recently.

With his uncle severely ill and the nearest primary healthcare centre being a one-hour boat ride away, which is not possible after sunset anyway, he thought of checking out the boat clinic anchored on their island as a last-ditch attempt. To his joy and relief, it was operational. The staff promptly attended to his uncle, whose stomach pain alleviated in an hour.

Chief pharmacist of the clinic Deepjyoti Nath told FactorDaily that their boat is now equipped with solar panels, which now enables the medical staff to attend to patients any time of the day.

Assam has 15 floating clinics serving the inhabitants of river islands in 32 villages of 13 districts. In May, solar panels were affixed on the roof of five of them, enabling them to operate 24×7

An NGO, Centre for North-East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), had launched these clinics on the water in 2005. The National Rural Health Mission joined the programme in January 2008 and it took the shape of a public-private partnership. In 2016, C-NES signed an agreement with Bengaluru-based SELCO Foundation to power these clinics with solar energy. SELCO, whose founder Harish Hande was conferred with the Ramon Magsasay award in 2011 for taking solar power to the poor, and its technical partner Envo Business Solutions fitted five of the boats with solar panels in the first phase of the project. Seven more boat clinics will be equipped with solar panels in the coming months.

Smooth operation

Earlier, noisy diesel generator would power the clinics’ equipment. While their engine still runs on diesel, all other power requirements are met by the solar panels. Along with lights, they also power a 50-litre refrigerator to store vaccines. The solar panels can give uninterrupted power supply during health camps and night stay for the medical team.

The National Rural Health Mission joined the programme in January 2008 and it took the shape of a public-private partnership. Image: Chandrani Sinha

Nath said solar power has made their life a lot easier. For example, he said if the diesel generator would stop working earlier, they’d scramble to get it fixed urgently, lest vaccines stored in the refrigerator got ruined. He said night services were particularly difficult without electricity. With them switching to solar power, he said not only have their operations become hassle-free, but their reach is also increasing.

Jodumoni Bora, a member of the boat crew, said earlier they would spend Rs8,000 every month on the generator, but now the solar panels generate 3kW of energy every day and give six hours of backup.

Fazle Illahi, general manager, Envo Business Solutions, told FactorDaily the main motive behind powering these boats with solar energy was to keep the clinic operational 24×7. “To render the services of OPD, laboratory, carrying vaccines to the far-flung areas, uninterrupted power supply is needed. And even for the team of the boat clinic,” he said.

These floating clinics treat 18,000-20,000 people every month and have helped more than 15 lakh people till March 2015.

According to the C-NES website, these floating clinics treat 18,000-20,000 people every month and have helped more than 15 lakh people till March 2015 (as per the last available data). Each boat travels with a 15-member staff, headed by the district programme officer. The team comprises two medical officers, three nurses, a pharmacist, a laboratory technician, three community workers and a four-member boat crew.

The boat clinics are operational in the following districts: Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Morigaon, Kamrup,  Nalbari, Bongaiaon, Barpeta and Dhubri. Both Barpeta and Dhubri have two boat clinics each to cater to their larger population.

 

Updated at 2pm on July 25 to remove the byline of Syeda Ambia Zahan.

The ‘Tech Meets Bharat’ series brings to you stories on how technology is impacting and changing lives in hinterland India. Chandrani Sinha is a Guwahati-based freelance writers and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.