Original story written and translation done specially for Vikalp Sangam
मजदूरों का अपना अस्पताल
Photo credits – Shaheed Hospital
The Shaheed Hospital is located in the small town of Dalli Rajhara of Balod District in the state of Chhattisgarh. Mine workers constructed this hospital with their sweat and toil. Every single brick in the hospital came from funds contributed by the workers. Not only did the workers build this hospital, they have run it successfully for the last 35 years. The administration of the hospital is managed entirely by a team of workers. Doctors, nurses and health workers offer their full support to the workers.
On 26 September 2016 when I reached the hospital, past memories came flashing back. Dr. Saibal Jana still works hard, and toils day-and-night. In 1984, when I first visited the Hospital, it had just completed a year. My purpose then was to experience the worker’s movement and see the hospital first hand. Then Dr. Asish Kundu and his wife Dr. Chanchala were also working there. Since my last visit, Dr. Jana’s hair has grayed but his energy, dedication and deep commitment has remained intact.
In 1984, I stayed with Dr. Jana in a hospital room. Patients would start pouring in and crowding the hospital corridors from early morning. The hospital buzzed with activity all day. In the evening the doctors and health workers fanned out in the worker’s colonies helping and educating them to control diseases in their own localities. As Dalli Rajhara is located in a valley, the low lying areas would get flooded during monsoons and seasonal diseases thrived. The Shaheed Hospital team of health workers went from house to house, educating people on disease prevention using printed leaflets and simple posters.
Dalli Rajhara is a small mining town located in the Balod District of Chhattisgarh. The two iron ore mines of Dalli and Rajhara give the town its name. The natural beauty of this area is quite breathtaking. The hills are painted red with iron ore. The slopes and valleys are dotted with red-tiled workers’ shacks and unbaked clay houses. Several small streams flow down the hills, their water reddened by the iron compounds composing the soil. The iron ore extracted from these mines is sent to the Bhilai Steel Plant.
To understand the circumstances under which the Shaheed Hospital was built we have to go back into history a little, and look at the workers’ movement in this area. In 1977, the iron mines had two labour unions – INTUC (Congress) and AITUC (Communist). These unions would collect contributions from the workers but were not honest in dealing with the worker’s demands. The workers were desperately searching for an honest leader.
When they heard about Shankar Guha Niyogi, who worked in the Danitola Mines they approached him. Niyogi had been imprisoned during the Emergency and had just been released from jail. Niyogi patiently listened to the workers woes and agreed to lead them. This is how the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMMS) was founded under the leadership of Shankar Guha Niyogi.
The workers struggled for their rights and for fair wages. In a bid to crush the movement the state government opened fire in which 11 workers were killed. Niyogi was also arrested. In the face of fierce workers’ unity, the management agreed and accepted the worker’s demands.
Niyogi, while addressing the workers, emphasized that “The workers union should not limit itself to the work place for 8 hours; it should permeate all 24 hours.” What he meant was that it should not be just an economic struggle, but the Union should endeavour to improve all aspects of the workers’ lives. This vision was very different from those of the traditional trade unions.
The workers struggled for their rights and won. With wage increase the workers got addicted to liquor. The liquor barons reaped bumper profits. Then the union started to reflect, “Did we fight for an increase in wages in order to benefit the liquor contractors?” This was the start of the anti-liquor campaign. This transformed the trade union struggle into a social movement. It was also a movement for better health. During this struggle some workers were also attacked by the liquor mafia. I still remember the road leading from Dalli Rajhara to Durg. On this route, at a certain spot near the Bhainsbod turning, one of the leaders of the anti-liquor campaign was killed ‘in an accident’ by the liquor lobby. But despite these attacks, the workers’ struggle continued.
Many struggles were launched and won under the capable leadership of Shankar Guha Niyogi. The sister organization of CMMS – the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) followed the dictum – “Struggle and Construct.” The CMM sincerely believed that constructive work must go hand-in-hand with struggle. On the one hand they struggled to usher in social change, while simultaneously engaging in constructive social work for building a new and better society.
Struggle and constructive work were seen as complementary. Constructive tasks included building a hospital, opening schools and opening a technical garage to train the workers’ children in technical skills. The CMM was set up to work with farmers and with people from all sections of society. Subsequently, the Mahila Mukti Morcha (MMM) was set up specifically for the empowerment of women.
The public health programme started with great enthusiasm. Struggle for Health and Worker’s Programme for all Workers were the slogans which defined the Health programme.
It was during this period that an accident took place which resulted in the premature death of Kusumbai – the Vice President of CMSS. It was this accident which gave birth to the idea of the hospital. Because of problems during pregnancy Kusumbai was admitted to the Bhilai Steel Plant hospital. Kusumbai died because of laxity in treatment at the hospital. This saddened the workers and also heightened their anxiety. “Can’t we save our own brothers and sisters? Can’t we take care of their illness?” they began thinking. This reflection sowed the seed of the future hospital.
At first a small dispensary was set up, and it was only later that the decision to build the hospital was made. Initially, all the work for the hospital was done by worker volunteers. The workers collected donations, contributed voluntary labour and worked day and night to build the hospital. In a single day, 10,000 workers collectively cast the cement roof of the hospital. After the completion of the hospital several mine workers underwent training to become health workers. They would toil all day in the severe heat at digging iron ore. In the evening they would each work at the hospital for six hours. They also volunteered at night to serve the patients.
The Hospital was inaugurated on June 3, 1983 by mine workers Lahaar Singh and Hallalkhor, a senior villager of Aadhejhar. On this occasion Niyogi commented, “This hospital is a gift from organized workers to unorganized workers.” The hospital was named “Shaheed Hospital” in the memory of the workers who had died during the 1977 shootout.
Although India has many big and well equipped hospitals, unfortunately they do not treat the poor. The poor enter these hospitals meekly with folded hands but are often abused and looted by doctors and nurses. Many poor patients die because no one heeds their woes. But this hospital is different, in that it is a workers’ hospital. They have built it with their own sweat and toil. It symbolizes their struggle. The workers are visibly proud of their hospital. When health workers Poonaram, Jaggu Singh Sahu, Aibal Singh and Sahu Barsaiyat talk about their experiences, the pride glows in their eyes. Earlier there were 10 health workers. Now there are four more. After retirement many health workers have returned to their native villages.
Whenever a workers’ struggle gains momentum, it is invariably crushed by the state. During such times the responsibility of the Shaheed Hospital increases manifold. Their team rushes to wherever there is conflict arising from a workers’ struggle, to support them. In March 2016, Dr. Saibal Jana was arrested by the police in a 24-year old case. This was resisted by intellectuals and social activists throughout the country. Be it the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Bhopal Gas victims’ struggle or the earthquake tragedy in Latur, the Shaheed Hospital has always helped the victims.
What started as a small dispensary has over the years transformed into a 135 bed hospital. It has a three storied building with modern equipment and facilities installed. There is an in-house dispensary, operation theatre and a pathology lab. There is even an ambulance. About 250 patients show up every day at the Out Patients Department (OPD). Many of them would have had to travel 100-150 kilometers, spending hours to reach the hospital. Patients come from near and far towns of Rajnandgaon, Raipur, Balod, Kanker, Charama, Pakhanjur (Kanker) and other places. When all the hospital beds are occupied, new patients crowd the corridors below. As the patients spread out on the floor, it is often difficult to walk around. Now a new building, which will exclusively house a Maternity Ward, is under construction.
Several doctors have served at the Shaheed Hospital. While many lent their services to help the workers’ cause, others worked to earn a living. The doctors who played a major role in the People’s Health Movement include Dr. Binayak Sen, Dr. Pabitro Guha and Dr. Punyabrat Gun. But today, Dr. Saibal Jana has become synonymous with the Shaheed Hospital. He came here immediately after finishing MBBS from Kolkata. For the past 34-35 years he has been the backbone of the hospital. He has been involved right from beginning – from the construction of the hospital to the training of health workers. He has been on the advisory board of several health committees set up by the government of Chhattisgarh. Alpana – Dr. Jana’s wife – a trained nurse, has also served the hospital ever since. The hospital has seven full-time doctors as of now. New doctors include Pavan Milkhe.
Before the hospital came up, people harboured many wrong notions such as women should not drink water during delivery’. Similarly, typhoid patients were encouraged not to eat and drink but to starve. But once the hospital started the health workers fanned out into labour colonies and organized poster exhibitions and demonstrated to people the correct way to treat patients. They also opposed blind faith and quackery. Many lives were saved by providing rehydrating fluids to patients who suffered from dysentery and vomiting. This led to a marked decrease in mortality.
According to the senior most hospital nurse Kuleshwari Sonwani, the treatment starts as soon as a serious patient comes to the hospital. They do not wait for the registration formalities to be completed. Patients who cannot pay are also treated. After the treatment is over the ambulance takes them home free of charge.
According to nurse Padmavati Sahu, “Here we gauge the condition of the patient, and then treat her as one of our own. Here a normal delivery cost between Rs.1000 – Rs.1500 only. A Caesarian operation however costs Rs.5000. In other hospitals this could cost Rs.15000. Our honest health staff never asks the patients for money – not even for a cup of tea. The Shaheed Hospital is unique in this aspect. The staff refuses tips when any patient is discharged. The staff here works not just for wages, but with a deep sense of service. The hospital treats all patients equally, and never discriminates. The same principle of equality extends to the whole hospital. Everyone here – the doctors and the cleaning staff included – enjoy the same rights.”
According to health worker Poonaram the hospital works on the principle of no-profit, no-loss. Registration charges here are just Rs.10, and a bed costs just Rs.5 a day. A nominal service charge of Rs.25 is levied. For the last few years, people below the poverty line have enjoyed the benefits of the National Health Mission. Many poor patients are treated under this scheme at the Shaheed Hospital. This scheme has also helped the hospital stand on a better economic footing. Under this scheme, charges for each procedure are fixed and expenditure on treatment provided must remain under the stipulated limit. The strength of the hospital staff is 98. It consists of 7 doctors, 35 nurses, 17 cleaning staff, 6 health workers and other staff.
According to Dr. Jana, “We wish to treat patients using not only the Allopathic approach but also through Ayurveda and other therapies. We have yet to find the right person for alternative therapies. There will always be a demand for good doctors at Shaheed Hospital. We also need appropriate, low-cost techniques and medical procedures.”
Shaheed Hospital has stood for many ethical practices. For instance, there is general reluctance to use unnecessary drugs. The structure of the Hospital is not pyramidal / heirarchical, as is common in most hospitals, where one is in perpetual conflict for seniority. People here work as equals and respect each other. The hospital does not accept donations. On several occasions the hospital has refused funds from abroad. The hospital does not accept any charity. But if some kindred hospital wishes to gift them some equipment, they gladly accept it.
It has been a long and arduous journey and the Shaheed Hospital has many accomplishments to its credit. But there are also several challenges staring it in the face. Shaheed Hospital’s greatest friend and benefactor – Shankar Guha Niyogi is no more. On 28 September 1991, Niyogi was murdered in Bhilai. There had been a movement in which factory workers were demanding a survival wage and some basic facilities. But instead of acceding to the workers’ demands the industrialists murdered their popular leader. After Niyogi’s death the workers’ movement split and has been weakened. However, there is also some good news that an attempt is being made to reunite these splinter groups. The Shaheed Hospital is now registered as an independent trust. The hospital has a bright future. But in the absence of an active workers’ movement and struggle the responsibility of fulfilling the hospital’s dream solely rests with the new generation.
Read the original story मजदूरों का अपना अस्पताल in Hindi
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