Boat Clinics Serve India's Isolated Villages

Hanna Ingber Win, for the Pulitzer Center
Guwahati, India


We load up in an SUV and make our way through the streets of Guwahati. It is raining, and much of this major city in northeastern India is flooded. Cars, men pedaling rickshaws and our SUV slowly edge their way through the water-filled streets. The water looks orange, stained from the clay that has eroded from the surrounding hills and clogged Guwahati's drains. We are headed to meet a boat that will take a group of medical staff and us to visit a remote island on the Brahmaputra River.

A dark cloud forms overhead, and we hope it doesn't storm. If it rains too hard, the villagers are less likely to come meet the temporary clinic the medical staff will set up on the island. If it storms, our boat won't be able to go at all. We – like the villagers – are in the hands of the rain.

About 3 million people live along the Brahmaputra, a massive river that stretches from Tibet to Bangladesh. The boat clinics, run by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) with funding from the Indian government and UNICEF, work in 10 of the 15 districts on the river. They have reached over 300,000 people since they began in 2005.

The boats serve some of Assam's most socially and geographically isolated communities. Most do not have electricity, secondary schools, hospitals, banks, post offices, toilets or much of anything.

"The facilities we take for granted on the mainland haven't been possible to have on an island," says Sanjoy Hazarika, the managing trustee of C-NES. Listen above to Hazarika describe the communities and need for the boat clinics here.

The villages are a collection of makeshift, thatch-roof homes, rice paddies and fields, farm animals and children. Lots of children. In some of the villages we will visit families had not been using any method of family planning, and it is common for them to have seven or eight kids.

When the villagers have gotten sick or needed care, they have relied on so-called quacks, people who pretend to be doctors and prescribe medication but have no training. The boat clinics bring many of these communities health care for the first time.

The rain continues as our SUV makes its way through Guwahati. The city lives in many centuries at once. The previous day, we had driven just 10 minutes south of the downtown area, which has chains like Reebok and tiny kiosks selling various types of mobile phones, and we saw two men riding down the street bareback on an elephant. They had presumably come into town from a hill village and use the elephant to help with farming.

Today, we head west and drive along a stretch of the Brahmaputra. Boats that offer dinner cruises stand at the dock. A little farther along we spot a group of men gathered in a huddle, bidding on goats. We pass lush green fields that are so bright they look florescent. An old man in a loincloth walks a cow on a rope across a bridge as a calf follows closely. Girls in green and white matching saris walk to school.

We meet up with another SUV, carrying the C-NES staff, and zigzag through the mud to get to the riverbank. The C-NES boat cook jumps out, takes off his shoes, pulls up his pants and wades into the mud, directing the SUVs over the least-likely-to-get-stuck route.

We make it to the boat. Now to the island.