“Where There Are No Roads” is as much a statement on the might of the Brahmaputra as on the promise held out by a boat clinic project that delivers healthcare to a million people living by the river

Fresh thinking has often delivered. Where There are No Roads, a 48-minute documentary screened at the India International Centre in New Delhi to a packed hall recently, has yet again driven home the point.

The film, directed by FTII-trained Assamese filmmaker Maulee Senapati, is about a public-private best practice being carried out in 13 districts of Assam since 2005 by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES). The project is in collaboration with the State Government’s National Rural Health Mission. C-NES and NHRM run 15 boat clinics to provide basic health facilities to a million-strong population living along the 760 km course of River Brahmaputra, cut off from the rest of the State, and therefore from several essential services. These people — estimated to be over 2.5 million of which one million have access to the boat clinics — are some of the poorest who distribute themselves in about 2,500 small islands created by the ever shifting river. Their situation worsens during the yearly floods; several succumb to their illnesses for non-availability of medical care at a critical time.

Senapati and his crew, for a year, has chased this story of C-NES planting hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, throwing at viewers frames, some so pretty and evoking beautifully the silence of the river, some grabbing with innovative camera angles its monsoonal fury which sweeps away people, their home and hearth ruthlessly almost every time. It also brings to us the human story, the dedication of the staff of the clinics, from doctors and nurses to the boat drivers and helpers, how they remain away from home for days together, live on the boats, put their life on the line during the floods to serve the unserved even if monetary benefit is minimal.

With the experience of filming Brahamputra for his earlier documentary for C-NES on river dolphins, Senapati says the physical challenge was not so big for him “even though shooting in a boat on a huge river can be boring as the landscape doesn’t change for a long time.” What posed a challenge was in grabbing the emotions of the people on camera. “These people have suffered for so many years that they are matter of fact while talking about their loss of home, family and farming land,” says Guwahati-based Senapati. The film also brings out crucial health-related facts of Assam, such as its maternal mortality rate, the highest for any State in India.

The script written by Sanjoy Hazarika, director of C-NES and also the film’s producer, is taut in the narration, from the germination of the brainwave back in 2004 to being an example of best practices from a region otherwise seen as militancy infested by mainstream India. The idea hit Hazarika on hearing the defenselessness of the river people during medical emergencies and how they often die because of no means to reach the nearest doctor. “Such a situation was unacceptable,” he felt. That access is the key to delivering basic health services to them was clear in his mind.

“I felt the simplest and the best way to reach those in need was by the very transport that they have used for ages, the boat. But they should be designed to carry medical teams, medicines and equipment,” recalls Hazarika. That his design for the boat soon won a World Bank competition helped him to fund his dream in mid 2005 complete with an OPD, a laboratory, cabins for the medical staff, medicine chest, kitchen, toilets, crew quarters, a general store, a generator set and a 200 litre water tank. C-NES tied up with Dibrugarh Administration to make that boat go with basic medical services to people in the district. “Using the same strategy, the service was soon expanded to Dhemaji and Tinsukia districts.”

C-NES soon got a much-needed fillip when UNICEF wanted to help in capacity building of the staff. NHRM saw in it an opportunity to reach the unreached and proposed a collaboration. “We entered into partnership with NHRM in January 2008,” says Hazarika. Rest as they say is history.

Hazarika now proudly states, “We are now building a boat hospital. It will have an operation theatre, a delivery room and separate wards for men and women among other facilities.”

(The documentary, funded by Population Council of India, will have its North East premiere in Guwahati this Friday)