Thirty years ago, vegetable seller Subhashini Mistry watched her husband die from gastroenteritis, a common, treatable disease, because their village had no medical facilities and they were too poor to travel to the nearest clinic.
But this tragedy, which happens on an almost daily basis in India’s teeming, impoverished rural areas, has a happy ending: The Humanity Hopsital that 65-year-old Mistry built for the poor, paying for it brick by brick through her modest income.
Located on the southwestern outskirts of Kolkata, the facility provides prompt treatment for a very small cost.
By working in roadside tea stalls to washing coals, the woman with no formal education did everything she could to educate her children and build the hospital which now boasts of three floors, 35 beds and a well-equipped surgery room.
The hospital started in 1993 with a single-bed located in a thatched hut.
“Mostly the poor come here. We charge a token fee for their treatment,” said Mistry’s son, Ajay Kumar, a medical doctor.
“This hospital is our only hope,” added 60-year-old Aruna Mondal, one of the villagers who visits the facility.
Hospitals such as Mistry’s and other charitable medical facilities are often the only alternative to government-funded healthcare system that is ill-equipped, overstretched and still lags behind India’s booming economy.
A report by children’s welfare group Save the Children blamed poor public health facilities for the annual deaths of nearly 2 million children under the age of five. Surveying 14 developing countries, the same report ranked India, Asia’s third largest economy, 171 out of 175 countries in terms of public health spending.
“We cannot sit idle and blame the government. We have to do a lot ourselves,” said D. Asish, who runs a mobile street hospital in the slums of Kolkata. Asish’s hospital is a lifeline for many in this metropolis of more than 15 million people where government hospitals are overflowing as much with squalor as poor patients who often lie on the floor due to the lack of beds.
Affluent expatriate Indians, especially doctors, are also setting up hospitals to bring modern healthcare to the poor, with the Westbank Hospital on the outskirts of Kolkata an example.
“Our aim was to provide modern healthcare to the patients from rural and semi-rural areas at a subsidised rate,” said Ashis Chakroborty, the hospital’s executive director.
“But we located our hospital not too far away from the city so as not to miss out on good doctors.”
Healthcare experts warn that India’s economic growth could be jeopardised by the status of the health of the poor.
“We are the most disease-ridden society. Since India spends less than one percent of its GDP on health it is natural that our economic growth would be impeded and the poor would remain under the poverty line,” Oxfam India healthcare expert Avinash Kumar told Reuters.