In rural Kashmir, health centres have been built and disowned without treating a single patient

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Budgam, Dec 18 (IANS/ 101 Reporters): The abandoned Primary Health Centre (PHC) at Keach belies the government’s claims of development in Kashmir, particularly in the health sector, post the nullification of Article 370.

It is one of the three large abandoned health facilities in remote areas of Budgam district in central Kashmir. On account of public demand, construction began on PHCs in Keach, Gurwait and Zanigam villages of the Khansahib area in 2006-2007. Crores were spent on these PHCs that aimed at providing health facilities to dozens of villages. On completion of construction, residents were desperately waiting for the inauguration. However, years have passed, and their endless wait continues as the health department has disowned two of three PHCs.

Creation and desertion — all in a day’s work

The locals are now up in arms against the health department for failing to make the hospitals functional. Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Keach, said that an enormous amount was spent on the structure but without providing any relief to thousands of households. “Keach PHC has over two dozen rooms, including a labour room, operation theatre, and other facilities. However, they have not been utilised to date due to the apathy of the government,” he rued. Ahmad said that an ambulance was sanctioned to the PHC but was later taken to the Khansahib sub-district hospital.

During the first and second Covid waves, the villagers faced tremendous distress. “Despite having a spacious building meant for the welfare of locals, we had to visit other areas for treatment,” Ahmad told 101Reporters. “Had the PHC been functional, it would have provided relief to people during Covid,” he added.

The story of the abandoned Zanigam PHC is similar. Every facility was built at the hospital, but the gates remain closed, said Fayaz Ahmad, a resident of Zanigam, adding that the government had let the PHC deteriorate.

When a PHC was sanctioned to Gurwait nearly 15 years ago, it brought a sense of relief. About 20 km from Budgam district headquarters, this village receives several feet of snowfall every year, bringing life to a virtual halt in winters. The PHC was to provide healthcare at their doorstep. However, like Keach and Zanigam, the Gurwait PHC remains padlocked.

Ghulam Mohammad Najar, a Gurwait resident, said that the locals face immense difficulties accessing healthcare. “During winters, our area receives over 5 feet of snowfall. We have to transport patients on charpais as the road remains blocked. At times, when patients are not taken to the hospital quickly enough, they die,” he told 101Reporters.

Elections over healthcare

Surprisingly, the gates of Keach and Gurwait PHCs were never opened for patients but instead made available to paramilitary forces for poll duty. The abandoned hospital structures have only served the purpose of the government during elections in the valley. When polls are near, the troops come and occupy the buildings, allegedly causing damage to the structures.

Locals said that soldiers had damaged geysers, electricity fittings, bulbs and other equipment in the buildings. Earlier in 2019, the landowner of the Gurwait PHC had lodged a complaint against the troops in the local police station for damaging the structure.

Reyaz Ahmad Lone, a local Sarpanch said that the villagers were poor, could not afford personal vehicles, and relied on public transport. “Most people belong to the poorest sections of society in Gurwait, and they cannot even afford the fare to visit other hospitals,” he said.

Blaming both the health department and local politicians for the misery of people, Firdous Nabi, a local Congress leader, said, “The former MLAs, MLCs and the health department have neglected the people in remote places.” Nabi added that he had raised the issue of the abandoned PHCs with every person concerned — from the Block Medical Officer (BMO) to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to the Director of Health Services, Kashmir, and the Lieutenant Governor’s administration — but all in vain.

Authorised in a vacuum

When contacted, the officials concerned said that two among three non-functional PHCs had no government approval. Arshid Hussain, BMO, Khansahib, said that the Keach and Zanigam hospitals were constructed without any authorisation, and therefore cannot be utilised. Tajamul Hussain Khan, CMO, Budgam, also seconded his subordinate. The officers stated that former Khansahib MLA and minister Hakeem Mohammad Yaseen had constructed the PHCs without any approval from the health department.

Former MLA Yaseen vehemently denied the health officials’ version and said that the money for PHCs came through proper channels. “How is it possible to construct PHCs without approval? If the PHCs were not sanctioned, who released the Rs 6 crores for their construction?” he reasoned. Yaseen also pointed out that the health centres’ foundation stone was laid in the presence of concerned officials, including the then Director Health Services, Kashmir, CMO Budgam and BMO Khansahib. The former MLA demanded action against those officials who have put the government assets at risk and consequently increased the suffering of common people.

When confronted with the former MLA’s claims, the BMO countered with a non-committal statement, “We do not know where the money for the construction of PHCs came from as it happened a long time back.”

About Gurwait PHC, both the officers said that there was a land dispute between the health department and the landowner whose land was acquired to construct the PHC.

The landowner, Mohamad Afzal, said that the health department had promised employment and compensation for providing three kanals of land to the PHC in 2007. “I don’t have any land left. I had only three kanals, which were given to the government after the assurance of employment and compensation. The government betrayed me,” he declared. Afzal, a father of six, said that his family had been cultivating paddy on the land, but after the PHC’s construction and the subsequent abandonment by the government, they have been left empty-handed. Following this, Afzal approached the courts in 2017. Since then, the issue has been sub judice. “It has been over 15 years since my land was taken away after false assurances. The department has made our lives terrible. Why would we give our fertile land to the government without any reason?” he asked.

(The author is a Budgam-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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