Of Forgotten Promises and Unsmart Facilities: A Glimpse of Varanasi’s Public Health Care

In Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi, it’s been something of an uneventful year. From promises of making it a smart, Kyoto-like city, to opening a special mini PMO, Varanasi has had many carrots dangled, and few concrete steps to solve age-old infrastructural and civic issues. A whopping 9 crores was spent on preparations for Modi’s visit this month, which was eventually cancelled (for the second time due to ‘bad weather’). A visit in the same week to the Beniyabagh Primary Health Centre exposed the wide gap between the Prime Minister’s grand plans for the city and the realities of its residents at present.

15-07-15 Kshetriya Banaras - Beniya Bagh PHC 1 - Kutte webThe Beniyabagh Primary Health Centre is housed in an old dilapidated building, barely 5 kilometres from the Bhartiya Janta Party’s office in the city. In the veranda, dogs were fast asleep under empty benches meant for the patients. The entire responsibility of the Centre has rested on three nurses for the past few weeks. Declared a ‘delivery centre’ meant to be equipped to cater to all needs of pregnant women, the centre was desolate in the middle of the day.

15-07-15 Kshetriya Banaras - Beniya Bagh PHC 2 - Empty Chairs web‘There used to be a Dr Rita Balani but she retired a few weeks ago. No other doctor has been appointed since,’ said Nurse Meera Yadav. Some old furniture and empty chairs were lying in the doctor’s cabin. The ward in the hospital is crammed with beds that look like they haven’t been used in months, by anyone except a few lizards, who looked quite settled there. Fading bloodstains spotted the yellowing sheets, ‘We get very few patients here. Most of them now go directly to the District Hospital,’ explained Meera. The District Hospital isn’t far but with its heavy footfall, patients can expect a long wait for treatment.

The dearth of doctors is not really distinct to Varanasi district, or Uttar Pradesh, or even India. Typically, there is 1 doctor per 1700 people in India, compared to the world average of 1.5 doctors per 1000 people. The Medical Council of India’s Vision 2015 document states that it aims to bring this ratio down to 1 doctor per 1000 people in India by 2031, but the shortage of doctors and specialists in smaller districts continues to be a problem. The fact that only 2% of the GDP is devoted to the health sector has also meant that the absence of medical personnel and facilities, especially in tertiary health care, continue to be abysmal.

Some distance away, there is a Health Post in Beniyabagh, for patients to get laboratory tests done and avail free medicines. The Health Post has a pharmacist and a lab assistant but no functional facilities for basic testing of blood and urine samples. ‘This is a supposed to be a health post but we don’t even have someone to come and clean the premises. The condition of the toilets is so deplorable that even the staff prefers to use toilets in the neighbouring houses,’ said Indira Chaubey, the Supervisor at the Post. ‘We have brought this to the notice of the Chief Medical Officer on a number of occasions but conditions have remained the same. We don’t even have proper facilities for water and electricity,’ she said.

15-07-15 Kshetriya Banaras - Modi Visit Prep 2 webThe Chief Medical Officer, Dr M.P. Chaurasia said, ‘We have discussed the matter with the Municipal Commissioner for the area. In a month or so we are planning to shift the Beniyabagh Health Centre and the Post to another building where all facilities will be provided.’ Meanwhile, Varanasi prepared to welcome its MP only to be stood up yet again on 16th July, when a gardener from West Bengal died in a freak accident when he was electrocuted at the rally venue in the wee hours of the morning. The local administration came under heavy criticism for the crores that were spent on lavish preparations and security cover for the Prime Minister. Ironically, Modi is to visit the city for the inauguration of a state of the art Trauma Centre in Banaras Hindu University among other projects. There has still been no word from the Prime Minister himself on when public health will be at the forefront of what is to become India’s international city.

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