The world came crashing down on Guna Kanta Kalita about six months ago. Debesh, his 20-year-old son and the only other member of his family, was diagnosed with oral cancer.
Guna Kanta, whose only source of earning is a small tea stall that he runs on Mahatma Gandhi Road near Jawaharlal Nehru Sisu Vidyalaya in Rangia, a small town about 50 kilometres from Guwahati, was devastated.
“I earn just a little over Rs 100 a day from my tea stall and supplement my meagre income by fishing on some days at the Baralia river. My earnings are barely enough to provide two square meals a day to the two of us,” he told Swarajya.
Debesh, he recounted, had been suffering from a persistent cough since the summer of 2022 and when he started experiencing difficulty in swallowing food and started coughing out blood, he was taken to the Rangia Civil Hospital in early April.
Doctors there suspected cancer and recommended tests. The tests only confirmed their worst fears.
Guna Kanta was at his wit’s end. Doctors at the civil hospital asked him to take his son to the Guwahati Medical College & Hospital for chemotherapy. But that was impossible for him because there was no way he could close down his tea stall for even a single day.
“I lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Not running my tea stall will mean no earnings, and consequently no food, for the day.
“I don’t have any savings. All that I had was spent on expensive medical treatment of my wife and daughter who were in a bus to Guwahati that met with a bad accident ten years ago.
“I had to sell a small plot of land that I owned and also all valuables in our house, including my wife’s jewellery, for their treatment.
“They were in a coma for several days, but doctors could not save them and they passed away within a day of each other. Debesh is the only family I have left now and I felt helpless when I was told he was suffering from cancer,” said Guna Kanta.
He told Swarajya that while procuring medicines for his son were not a problem, thanks to the Assam Atal Amrit Abhiyan health insurance scheme (launched by Himanta Biswa Sarma in December 2016), it was the recommended chemotherapy that was an issue.
“Taking my son to Guwahati for chemotherapy would mean keeping my tea stall closed for at least three days. Besides loss in earnings, there would have been expenses like the fare to Guwahati, putting up at some lodge and having food there.
“All that meant a couple of thousand Rupees which I simply did not have. I went to a moneylender, and he told me I would have to mortgage my tea stall and the little furniture that I have at home. I agreed because there was no way out,” said Kalita.
And then a miracle in the form of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) happened.
Doctors at the Rangia Civil Hospital told him that a world-class superspeciality hospital that had come up at Changsari, about 25 kilometres from Rangia, would become functional very soon and he could take his son there for consultation and chemotherapy.
AIIMS, Guwahati, which is located at Changsari on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi on April 14 this year.
Kalita visited AIIMS two weeks ago. Doctors there examined his son’s test reports and then held consultations through video-conferencing with senior oncologists at AIIMS, New Delhi.
“Some new medicines were prescribed and I was given them free of charge from the pharmacy there. I was told that the chemotherapy unit will start functioning from next month. I have already registered my son for chemotherapy there,” said Guna Kalita, a much-relieved man now.
“I was told that I could bring my son early in the day for chemotherapy sessions which last for three hours or so. And he can be admitted there for treatment. So I won’t have to close my tea stall for more than half a day.
“Since my son can be admitted to AIIMS for free, I won’t incur any costs on food and lodging also. So I won’t need to mortgage my stall and my belongings to the moneylender. I can’t thank the Prime Minister and our Chief Minister enough for this,” he said.
Guna Kalita is one of the thousands who have benefited (or stand to benefit) from the new AIIMS.
Though the institution is only running OPD (Out-Patient Department) services now, a 150-bed unit for emergency surgeries will become operational by early next month (June).
“We are catering to about 700 patients a day on an average at our OPD. We are ready to launch a 150-bed unit for emergency surgeries and it will become operational from early next month. Our 750-bed hospital will become operational in a few months’ time,” AIIMS (Guwahati) Executive Director Professor Ashok Puranik told Swarajya.
He said that while recruitment to the Institute’s teaching faculty is complete, another 50-odd doctors in various specialities would be joining from July and all vacant posts of medical, para-medical, nursing and administrative staff will be filled up by August-September.
“Our chemotherapy unit will start soon and radiotherapy services will start by the end of this year. All other facilities will be in place by then and we will be fully operational after that,” said Prof Puranik.
“AIIMS Guwahati will provide world-class healthcare for free to patients from not only Assam, but the rest of the Northeast as well. The Institute will revolutionise healthcare in the region. I am sure cutting-edge research in genetics, neurosciences, oncology and other fields will be conducted at the Institute and will greatly benefit the people of this region,” Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told Swarajya.
The AIIMS Dream Comes True For Assam
Sarma is the person responsible for setting up the AIIMS here. “Ever since I became Health Minister (in the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government) in 2006, I had dreamt of opening an AIIMS in Assam. It became a reality only after the NDA government gave its approval in June 2016 and sanctioned Rs 1,000 crore for setting up the Institute in Assam,” said Sarma.
Sarma held the health portfolio again in the Sarbananda Sonowal government from 2016 to 2023 and continues to take an active interest in the department even after becoming the chief minister (in 2021).
He admits that nothing happened between 2006 (when he first became the health minister) and 2016 (when the BJP defeated the Congress in Assam to come to power).
“Despite many representations and numerous entreaties to the Manmohan Singh Government, no progress on setting up the AIIMS in Assam was made. The UPA government just sat on our proposal,” said a senior officer of the state health department.
After the BJP came to power in the state in May 2016, Sarma made a fresh representation to the Modi-led NDA Government. J P Nadda, who was the health minister at that time, not only agreed to the proposal immediately, but also informed Prime Minister Modi about it.
Modi, it is learnt, asked the PMO to ensure that the necessary approvals, including financial sanction, are granted immediately. The very next month (June 2016) all approvals came through and things got moving immediately.
Land for setting up the Institute at Changsari was handed over to the Union Government in end-June and the process of inviting bids for civil construction works was set in motion soon after that.
The Union Government has, so far, spent Rs 1,123 crore on the new AIIMS in Assam. More will be spent on new equipment and other facilities.
“This AIIMS will correct regional imbalances in availability of affordable and world-class super speciality healthcare. Apart from providing best quality medical education, AIIMS Guwahati will provide comprehensive, quality and holistic tertiary care health services to the people of Assam and the Northeast at their doorsteps through our community outreach initiatives and optimal use of digital health infrastructure,” said Prof Puranik.
The Executive Director said that by the end of this year, his Institute will provide state-of-the-art cancer care, advanced laparoscopic facilities, trauma care and futuristic interventions like robotic surgery, organ transplantation, regenerative medicine, genetics and simulation labs.
Another important focus area for AIIMS (Guwahati) is the conduct of clinical and epidemiological studies of common diseases and ailments afflicting people of the Northeast.
“People of Assam and other states of this region will no longer have to go to other parts of the country for advanced medical care. AIIMS Guwahati will provide the best medical treatment that is currently available in the country. This is nothing but a Godsend for the people of the Northeast,” Assam health minister Keshab Mahanta told Swarajya.
Arunachal Pradesh health minister Alo Libang told Swarajya: “Many patients are taken by their families to places like New Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai for specialised treatment. They exhaust their lives’ savings and have to sell their properties. But soon, that will not be necessary and the best medical care will be available right next to us in Assam”.
Meghalaya health minister Ampareen Lyngdoh also said that the new AIIMS at Guwahati is a big boon for people of her state.
The residents of Assam and the neighbouring states can soon start availing the services at the new world-class healthcare facility that has come up in the heart of Assam.
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