Angels of hope: They make the poor and helpless aware of their rights (IANS Special Series)
New Delhi : When Rambabu, a 27-year-old who worked in a ration shop in Patna, got to know he was suffering from brain tumor, he was devastated. But his nightmare was compounded when he travelled over a thousand kilometres in that condition to New Delhi for treatment only to find there was a waiting period of six months at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) referral hospital.
He could not afford treatment at a private hospital and a wait of six months at AIIMS seemed as good as being on death row. It was in that moment of hopelessness that lawyer and community worker Ashok Agarwal came to his rescue and made him aware of the government policy under which people from the economically weaker sections (EWS) are entitled to free treatment at large private hospitals built on government land.
Not only that, Agarwal also got Rambabu admitted at the Max Hospital, Patparganj, where he has already started receiving treatment.
"He used to complain of excruciating pain in his head 24 hours a day. Doctors in Patna suggested he should be taken to Delhi, where we arrived on July 18," Rambabu's brother Shambabu, 35, told IANS.
"At AIIMS, we were given a date in December for his operation but his condition was deteriorating. No matter what he ate, he would eventually throw up. He needed urgent attention," he said.
An acquaintance then suggested they speak to Agarwal who got a bed arranged for the tumor patient at Max Hospital.
Thousands of people like Rambabu have benefited from the provision of 10 per cent charity beds meant for the EWS category, Agarwal told IANS.
About four years ago, Agarwal came across an entire family in the Harijan Basti in south-west Delhi which were affected by a fire caused by a cylinder blast. Three small girls had their faces terribly burnt and their father had bandages all over on one of his legs.
Agarwal referred them to Gangaram Hospital were they underwent plastic surgeries. The father's leg was so infected so it had to be amputated but had the operation not been done, he would not have survived.
"There have been a dozen such episodes where I randomly came across a suffering person who was not able to avail any health facility. They were referred to various private hospitals that come under the government policy of charity beds," he said.
Every Saturday, Agarwal meets people who need similar help at his chamber in Tis Hazari court. He helps them fill up the declaration form stating they belong to the EWS category and can't afford costly treatment. But it took several decades for the advocate and other activists like him imbued with similar altruistic passion to ensure that private hospitals adhere to government guidelines and don't turn away poor patients.
It was in 1949 that the Central government decided to allot land to hospitals and schools at highly concessional rates so as to involve them in achieving the larger social objective of providing affordable health and education to people. In 2002, Agarwal filed a petition because private hospitals were not serving the poorer sections of society. In his petition, he said even those hospitals where the allotment letters clearly said that up to 70 per cent beds had to be reserved were not following the rules.
A 2007 judgment by the Delhi High Court said that hospitals had to pay hefty fines if they earn profits on beds that had to be reserved for the poor. In 2012, the Delhi government ordered hospitals to implement the Delhi High Court's judgment under which they were bound to reserve 10 per cent of the beds -- with all medicines and tests included -- and 25 per cent of all out-patient consultations for the poor.
But even that was not enough because, while beds were reserved, there was a time when none of them were occupied due to lack of awareness among the poor.
In order to spread awareness, Kapil Chopra, who served as the president of Oberoi Group of hotels for five years, joined hands with Agarwal and simulcasted an audio recording about this provision over WhatsApp, which went viral.
While Agarwal's battle for the poor was on, Chopra independently made efforts to make people aware and help them through his web portal to get treatment in private hospitals. He started a website charitybeds.com which gives real-time availability of over 650 beds in Delhi and NCR every day.
"We realised there is a big difference between issuing an order and its implementation. We thought why don't we help in bridging the gap between government, patients and hospitals because it's very difficult for a poor person to enter a big private hospital like Max and tell them it's his right to get treatment there. It is very intimidating for them," Chopra told IANS.
The website has been running for the past five years now and is administered by his associates Lalit Bhatia and Gagan Bharti who answer all queries of poor patients, counsel them, help them get to hospitals and also with all the required documentation.
"We help patients when someone calls us, we go to government hospitals and pick up patients from there, we help people reaching private hospitals directly. We help people who have BPL (below the poverty line) cards and people who do not have any card as they are not aware because they are so poor," Chopra said.
"Finally, I can say that around 85 to 90 per cent of these charity beds are occupied today," said Agarwal with some satisfaction.
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Mudita can be contacted at email@example.com)