In the last decade, from a sleepy tourist town housing various world famous medieval monuments, including of course the Taj Mahal, Agra has mutated into a typical large city in globalized India.
Once it was the only city in the north to have well-planned markets controlled and run by specific clans, and also one exclusively for female shoppers who kept the purdah. It still has markets with names such as Raja Ki Mandi, Rani Ki Mandi, Johri (jewellers’) Bazaar and so on.
But the old Agra is being fast overshadowed by the new one that has large malls displaying the usual United Colors of Benetton, Chinese, Korean and Japanese made electronic goods, readymade garments and beauty parlours flanked by coffee shops and McDonald’s yellow arches. Several old traditional kiosks and eateries above or next to the large shops sell everything from rugs and the usual touristy baubles to the famous Agra petha (candied ash gourd bits) and dalmoth, a local snack delicately flavoured with mango powder and fresh ground black pepper. All do good business.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra was the capital of the Moghuls that gave the city many of its magnificent palaces, forts, gardens, market places and tombs. Two centuries later, when the East India Company troops moved into the Agra fort and built their own barracks, a small hospital was built to service the soldiers.
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In time, after St John’s College (1914) created a hub for higher learning here, the hospital at Agra began to grow and finally became a large medical school and public hospital. It is currently known as the S.N. Medical College and is housed in the original building.
In the last two decades, government apathy, a rise in crime and a drying up of public funds had all but killed this hospital. Then a young paediatrician, N.C. Prajapati, by some quirk of bureaucratic machinery, was brought in to head the college. He was honest enough to be appalled by the state of things and young enough to dream about setting things right.
Communities such as Help Agra already existed and had often addressed local needs such as clean drinking water in public places, by passing the proverbial hat around among themselves instead of appealing to the government. Members of this group contacted Prajapati soon after they heard about his plans to improve health-care facilities and offered to lend a hand. Thus a unique public-private partnership was born spontaneously.
Together the staff of S.N. Hospital and Help Agra first listed the immediate needs. Prime among them was speedy critical care. The hospital had only one old ambulance and it was rarely available when needed. Help Agra collected funds and provided the hospital with a fleet of ambulances, replete with a public hotline manned by volunteers.
Arrangements were then made, again by volunteers from Help Agra, to help the very poor to get expensive medicines for free from special outlets on the hospital premises. All the patients needed to show were doctors’ referral slips and their below-the-poverty line cards. Soon the city’s first eye bank also came up.
It was while doing a story on this rare and fruitful partnering that our Hindi paper Hindustan was also roped in. We were asked if our Agra edition would issue an appeal in the city columns for citizens to donate small amounts of money for providing a few simple wooden benches for the relatives of indoor patients being treated in various wards.
Like all government hospitals, the S.N. Hospital faces an acute shortage of nurses and expects relatives to tend to all critically ill patients round-the-clock. The harassed family members of the critically ill often had to squat on the floor as they monitored vital life support systems and kept out the stray dogs. It was to make their life a little less hard that around a hundred benches were needed. The district jail was contacted and it agreed to provide the benches through their workshop at a low cost of Rs300 per bench.
Hindustan began inserting a small daily appeal in its pages asking citizens for voluntary donations. Within just five days, sufficient funds had arrived for 138 benches. A few weeks later, the benches were donated to the hospital jointly by Help Agra and Hindustan at a small and intimate function held in the hospital’s auditorium.
Renovation of the old hospital building is next on the list of jobs to be done. Currently, the unusable parts of the hospital are being torn down to make way for a modern vertical structure that can be equipped with modern amenities for both treatment and teaching. No one is worried about funds. “They will come. It is a city with a big heart,” they say.
In a city where love has left behind as its relic, one of the world’s greatest monuments, the Taj Mahal, sufferings of millions of poor in a derelict government hospital had passed on for years without a trace. No record remains today of those that spent long futile hours and days within these walls, hoping against hope to live or save their loved ones. So many that could have been saved, were not, either due to bunglings, or apathy or sheer foolishness.
If only one could tap the energies generated by the needless suffering of the helpless, and combine them with the elemental force of love that old and strong community ties are still capable of generating, one would perhaps not just create beautiful relics, but also truly transform the face of public health-care in India.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org