There are about 2,400 small and medium island villages in Assam on the Brahmaputra inhabited by a population of about 3 million. They are locally called chars or saporisas in Assam. They represent 8 percent of the total population of the state of 30 million. Every year the big and mighty Brahmaputra river floods. Lacs of people get displaced and extensive property, crops and livestocks are destroyed. Health problems become acute. Many get affected by water-borne diseases. A major problem for these people is access to medicines and sustained health care.
The boat clinic is the brainchild of Sanjoy Hazarika, director, Center for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES). It was while working on a documentary film in Assam in 1996, that Hazarika heard of a pregnant woman dying on a sapori, trying to reach a medical facility. By 2004, Hazarika, a former New York Times reporter came up with the idea of a ‘boat clinic’— that would take doctors and basic healthcare to these areas. He presented this idea to world bank and won the innovation prize (called Akha or hope) in the year 2005.
The prize money of 20000$ was used to build the first boat clinic. The boat was 22 meters long and over 4 meters wide with an OPD, Laboratory, cabins for medical staff, medicine chest, kitchen, toilets, crew quarters and a general store. It set sail from Dibrugarh. From then on for people on Brahmaputra’s shifting islands, the only source of health service are boat clinics. Currently a total of 15 boats work in 13 districts of the state.