A young doctor overcomes many odds to reach medical assistance to villagers in Jharkhand’s Garu region, which is severely underdeveloped and a hotbed of Maoist violence

Along the road to Garu in Jharkhand’s Latehar district, as the sal forest thins and houses become visible, electricity poles can be spotted every few meters. But the villages in Garu, 280 km from Ranchi, are among the two-thirds of all rural homes in Jharkhand without electricity. The bare, cement-grey poles with nothing on top were erected at different points over the last 30 years, recount villagers, but the “line” (electricity connection) did not arrive.

At 10 a.m. on a Sunday in these yet-to-be-electrified forest villages, the block hospital’s Medical Officer Dr. Amresh Kumar is attending to his third patient since morning. “Did you try to clean her ear? Look, now it is bleeding from inside,” he examines two-year-old Budhmani’s ear using the torch application on his phone.

Dr. Kumar’s ground-floor office is freshly-painted and has new chairs. It has a desktop but no Internet connection, a washbasin but no piped-water supply. “In the morning, we fill water from the hand-pump nearby and store it in buckets. We usually get by, but after deliveries, etc. it is hard to clean up,” says the 30-year-old doctor who could pass off as a student at Ranchi’s numerous coaching institutes. But in the two years that he has supervised 70 programmes under the National Rural Health Mission at Garu, the young physician has turned the hospital around.

Garu is the epicentre of some of the worst Maoist violence in Jharkhand in recent years. Two years back, Maoists blew up a vehicle which was part of MP Inder Singh Namdhari’s convoy, killing eight persons. For three weeks in June this year, security personnel and Maoists were locked in confrontation 35 km from here. Because of poor government health services and absentee officials, more than 31,000 people in 70 villages in Garu had no option but travel 60 km to Daltonganj or 110 km to Latehar for emergencies. 

“The hospital was in dhibreeyug [age of kerosene lamps]. But now it has solar light; they started doing surgeries this year, and there is a new X-ray machine as well,” says Sujata Devi, a skills-trainer at Garu block office. Inside the hospital, the 30-bed ward is scrubbed clean and has new mattresses and blankets. On one of the beds, 10-year-old Aprita Kumari surrounded by her family is recuperating from an appendicitis surgery. In two months since a surgeon was appointed here, the team has done over 50 surgeries — for hernia and hysterectomy to caesarean section.

“I started with getting the Outdoor Patient Department area where patients are examined covered. Then I got 16 solar panels installed. As I began to examine patients regularly, the numbers increased from 60 patients per week in 2011 to an average of over 400 every week now. That allowed me to apply for more beds, more facilities, more doctors,” says Dr. Kumar.

He recounts that soon after graduating from Rajindra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi when he got posted to this area categorised as a high malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhoea-incidence zone, he could not even find an online entry for Garu. “For six months, I felt stuck,” he smiles. “Then I organised a medical camp in Kujru, a hill village 35 km from here. Several villagers there had high fever, two had leprosy. In Jaigir, we attended to 168 patients in one day.” 

The hospital staffs who now hold monthly camps in villages share similar stories about trekking uphill to villages which have not seen a medical official in years. “When we go to a village, we try to get everyone to come, even the youngest children. Maoists neither overtly cooperate nor do they cause any obstacles,” says one of the hospital’s staff.

While a surgeon was deputed at the hospital this year, the posts of paediatrician, anaesthesiologist, and gynaecologist lie vacant. There are six posts for Auxiliary Nurse and Midwives; two got appointed. Unlike neighbouring Chhattisgarh, which in 2009 allowed medical officers and specialists working in rural areas incentives of up to Rs. 25000 besides their salary, leave benefits, insurance and allowances, Jharkhand has no such policy. From his batch of 900 fresh graduates who joined the government, 300 have left the service already, says Dr. Kumar.

“I applied for a deep-boring but there was no response. I asked for an approach road to the room where women deliver but that is pending at the block level even after the District Collector sanctioned it. We need 20 more solar panels. It is at times like these when the department does not cooperate, that I feel like running away,” rues the young doctor.