External Affairs Ministry declined permission to the agency to operate

The Chhattisgarh government has denied giving any permission ever to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to work in Chhattisgarh. State Health Secretary M.K. Raut recently told The Hindu that it was “never allowed” to operate out of conflict areas of south Chhattisgarh.

Chief Minister Raman Singh said a few years ago that his government had “no problem” if the ICRC provided medical care. Subsequently, the ICRC ramped up its facilities with the help of the government.

In June, it was asked to “suspend” its activities after almost three years, thus severely affecting the primary medical needs of the Gond tribal people.

The ICRC was never given any “written permission” to work in Chhattisgarh, Mr. Raut said. It sought government permission, which was sent to the Union Home Ministry. “The Home Ministry forwarded the request to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which denied permission to the ICRC. The State government had no role,” said Mr. Raut.

In 2008, Mr. Raman Singh publicly appreciated the ICRC’s work, saying, “…ICRC plays a vital role in mitigating the sufferings of people in conflict zones.” Eventually, the district administration of Sukma and Bijapur facilitated the setting up of two permanent health centres and three mobile units of the ICRC. It was allowed to start the clinic at Sukma in a government school building. In Kutru, it was asked to renovate a public health centre to set up the clinic.

Sources in the State government told The Hindu on condition of anonymity that the government “totally endorsed the ICRC’s expansion” in remote areas to address the medical needs.

The ICRC signed a memorandum of understanding with the MEA to work in Kashmir. However, the agency had no such mandate to work in Chhattisgarh, but still medical facilities were set up. The ICRC declined to comment on why they did not sign a MoU before entering some of the most sensitive districts of the country.

ICRC’s communication coordinator Marek Resich said the agency “stressed to the authorities the importance of withdrawing in a responsible way so as to ensure the continuation of services to the population.”

He said, “The ICRC conveyed to the authorities that any abrupt stopping of activities would raise concerns over the impact on the people relying on humanitarian services. For example, the ICRC is concerned about diarrhoeal deaths in the Bastar region.”

Withdrawal of the ICRC has affected people’s lives in far-flung villages around Kutru in Bijapur and Chintalnar in Sukma. “The ICRC used to run their clinics with proper doctors, whereas the government doctors — who are now running the clinic — are totally inefficient. Moreover, they are not willing to stay for more than two weeks a month,” said a sarpanch of Bijapur.

Villagers said all-round primary care such as treating malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory tract infection, skin diseases, ante-natal and post-natal care and snake-bite cases provided by the ICRC had disappeared. Shortage of life-saving drugs intensified the problem. “Could they have done this at peak of monsoon in Delhi?” asked Damodar, a farmer. Documents show thousands of tribal people used to visit the ICRC’s clinic from very remote villages every week.