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Medical aid on sail - documenting the boat clinics of Assam
Sunday May 19, 2013 12:05 PM, IANS

What began as an impulse to help those in need of dire medical attention in isolated areas of Assam, where the mighty river Brahmaputra is both a lifeline and a curse, is today a unique mission to reach healthcare to almost a million people spread over 13 districts of the far-flung northeastern state.

Unfolding the miseries of these people, who are beyond the pale of the state's healthcare system or displaced following annual floods, a 48-minute documentary evocatively depicts how these specially designed and outfitted boats - called boat clinics - comes to their rescue and brings succour to the needy.

Director Maulee Senapati says river Brahmaputra, which emanates from Tibet and has recently been a subject of dispute with China because of the run-of-the-river it is building on its side, may look romantic from a distance, but it poses a challenge for those staying on its banks.

The hardships of people are well depicted in "Where There Are No Roads - The Boat Clinics of the Brahmaputra", at a special screening organised at the India International Centre, telling a moving tale of how people lose their source of livelihood and houses and how the absence of basic medical care and education adds to their woes during the tough times.

The inaccessibility of the afflicted people is reflected in the title itself, while the narrative revolves around boat clinics which try to reach people in these remote areas to provide health care, often putting the lives of the crews and doctors at risk.

An initiative of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), the boat clinics provide help to those living in places inaccessible by road. Fifteen such boats work in the 13 districts of the state - Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Morigaon, Kamrup, Nalbari, Bongaiaon, Barpeta, Dhubri and Bongaigaon.

Shooting the documentary, that was funded by the Population Foundation of India, was an insightful experience for Senapati.

"The river presents a conflict scenario. From a distance it's very romantic, but when you start looking at life, many challenges lie there. It's man who has been exploiting the river which has resulted in the present state. It is a different world altogether. Life is very harsh," Senapati told IANS at the documentary's screening.

He experienced the hardships of a boat clinic member himself to tell the story as authentically as possible.

"I travelled with a boat clinic, but to selective places. I shot from somewhere near Jonai, which is bordering Arunachal Pradesh, the upper reaches of Brahmaputra and Dhubri," he said.

Senapati's documentary also shows how the doctors of boat clinics educate the afflicted populace about polio and family planning among other things. It also sheds light on how sometimes it becomes hard for boat clinic members to fight social stigma and convince people about the importance of family planning.

The film is well-supported with narration and features interviews of people who have spoken whole-heartedly in support of the boat clinics. But for the benefit of a larger audience the dialogues in Assamese have been subtitled.

"Where There Are No Roads..." will have its northeast premiere in Guwahati on May 24. There are also plans of screening for the film in other parts of the country.

The documentary's producer and scriptwriter, Sanjoy Hazarika, told IANS: "The C-NES Boat Clinic Project is a socially inclusive intervention that tackles a formidable challenge - geographical exclusion. It has leveraged boat clinics in stepping up comprehensive healthcare services for hard-to-reach communities."

Hazarika, a former India correspondent of the New York Times who is the managing trustee of C-NES, also intends to send the movie to national and international film festivals. He has earlier been involved in making films on river dolphins as endangered species and arms conflict, along with Senapati.

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