Kolkata: Eleven years ago, Mohammad Farid, then 22, came to Kolkata from Bangladesh’s Faridpur district to be treated for complex nephrological and neurological problems. He has since turned into a professional “guide”, assisting patients from Bangladesh in their quest for treatment—a booming business because, as he observes, people cross the border even for diagnostic tests.
“Even for simple pathological tests such as blood sugar and lipid profile, Bangladeshis prefer laboratories in Kolkata,” says Farid. “I help dozens of people come to Kolkata for tests every year. Tests done here are seen as more credible.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Bangladeshis coming to India for treatment is this: Many of them arrive not for complicated procedures but for routine pathological tests. The more affluent medical tourists go to Singapore these days, but that still leaves an estimated 500 Bangladeshis entering India every day, seeking treatment.
Nine out of 10 head for private hospitals in Kolkata, says Syed Masud Mahmood Khundoker, Bangladesh’s deputy high commissioner in the city.
The remainder go to south India, mostly to Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, where almost all doctors follow Bengali, at least when it comes to the description of symptoms.
Part of the reason for this continuing flood of arrivals is the ease of entering India by road, even for people without the appropriate documents. “I have been coming to India for the last 15 years, and I have never had a passport,” says a patient at a private hospital in Kolkata, who did not disclose his name. He suffers from a neurological disorder and needs regular check-ups. “I bribe the security officers at the border. I have never had a problem. It’s the most convenient way of travelling to Kolkata.”
At these private hospitals, the cost of treatment can be crippling for many Bangladeshis. When 15-year-old Almasuddin Paramanik, from the Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, fell and injured his hips, doctors determined that he needed a hip replacement—a complex surgery even in the developed world.
His father, Tayeb Ali Paramanik, who used to till two-and-a-half bighas of land for a living, sold two bighas to rustle up cash for the surgery. (A bigha is one-third of an acre.) Doctors in Kolkata, where Almasuddin is currently undergoing treatment, have estimated that the surgery will cost Rs1.5 lakh. “It’s a huge amount for us,” says Paramanik. “But it’s a question of life and death for my son.”
The economy engendered by this medical tourism goes beyond the building of new hospitals. Though restricted to a small locality on the south-eastern fringes of Kolkata, Bangladeshi patients have created jobs for hundreds of young people; dozens of money-changers and guest houses have sprouted in the past few years.
“No one’s unemployed in this locality,” says Nilmoni Samanta, who runs a small roadside eatery near the Rabindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences (RTIICS), one of the more recent additions to the area. “If you want to cash in on the opportunity, there are so many things you could do—work as a guide, run an eatery like me, or sell (Dhaka-Kolkata) plane and bus tickets.”
In this locality, anyone who has an extra room in the house rents it out to Bangladeshi patients, says Satyabrata Das, a money-changer who runs a small office opposite RTIICS. “You would earn at least Rs600 a day all year round,” he estimates. “Guest houses are more expensive. They cost at least Rs1,000 a day per room.”
The smarter entrepreneurs ensure Bangladeshis feel at home. They name their guest houses after Bangladeshi towns or celebrities—Dhaka Lodge, for instance, or Bangabandhu Abashik (named after Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman)— they serve authentic Bangladeshi cuisine, and they even arrange for Bangladeshi cable channels on television.
Until the early 2000s, there were two main private hospitals in Kolkata—Ruby General Hospital and Peerless General Hospital—that served Bangladeshi patients. Over the last 10 years, at least four others have sprung up, and more are in the pipeline, all eyeing the ever-expanding business from people across the border.
Peerless Hospital, for instance, currently gets at least 10,000 Bangladeshi patients per year, according to its spokesperson; a decade ago, that number stood at 30,000. “We have five other competitors now and two more are under construction in Kolkata alone,” he says.
Medica Superspecialty Hospital, just five months old, relies on Bangladeshi patients for 5-10% of its revenues, according to Saumitra Bharadwaj, its medical superintendent. “This is crucial for any new hospital,” he says. “It could almost determine whether a hospital makes money or not.”
Indeed, the revenue from Bangladeshi patients is so crucial that some start-ups, such as the year-old Desun Hospital, are planning to open marketing offices across the border. “We will launch a campaign to spread awareness about our facilities through seminars, video-conferences and contacts at clinics in Bangladesh,” says Pijush Dutta, executive coordinator at Desun.
But as Bangladesh ramps up its own healthcare infrastructure, Bharadwaj thinks Kolkata’s super-specialty hospitals are likely to draw more patients than multi-specialty medical centres. “Going forward, only people in need of critical care would come to Kolkata.”
Unsurprisingly, Indian firms are looking to dip their toes into the expanding pool of Bangladeshi healthcare as well. Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd has already built a super-specialty hospital in Dhaka, and Peerless Hospital is hoping to tie up with a local partner to start clinics in Bangladeshi towns such as Chittagong, Rajshahi and Dhaka.
And with good reason: Almost half the people who receive medical treatment at Peerless’ outpatient department (OPD) in Kolkata are Bangladeshis, according to the hospital’s spokesperson. “Most of them come for check-ups following major surgeries,” he says. “Once we’ve launched our clinics in Bangladesh, people wouldn’t have to come to the Kolkata hospital’s OPD.”
This is the last in a four-part series on people from neighbouring countries living in India. To read the previous stories, go to www.livemint.com/neighbours