Hundreds of Bangladeshi citizens who had come to Kolkata for medical treatment were left in a quandary after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation announcement. Notes, preciously gathered and warily protected, had lost meaning. The hope of treatment and health was replaced with the horror of being penniless in a foreign country.
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Take Mustafijure Rahman, for instance. A Bangladeshi citizen, he came to Kolkata with high-value denominations. On Wednesday the brother-sister duo queued for four hours before leaving with some money. They’ll need to go back again on Saturday when some tests are scheduled. “We come to India for treatment because we know that here the quality of medication and treatment is far superior to Dhaka. It’s more expensive, but it’s a matter of life and death. We sold land to come here, and now that money has been rendered useless,” he said.
Such stories are not uncommon. Government officials estimated that nearly 300 Bangladeshis patients enter India every day, and of the 10, 9 come to Kolkata for treatment. Proximity and ease of language makes it the preferred destination, and in reaction to this burgeoning medical tourism, a number of new hospitals have come up near the east-Kolkata township, on the south-eastern fringe of the city.
The influx of Bangladeshi patients have created jobs for hundreds – money-changers, guesthouses with names like ‘Dhaka Lodge’ and eateries that advertise ‘special fish’ have come up in recent years. Many have found work as guides, while others sell (Dhaka-Kolkata) plane and bus tickets.
All of this has come to a halt. Queues are now restricted to ATMs and bank outlets, while other establishments remain drearily empty.
“We don’t even have money to buy medicine. I have paid a hefty advance for my daughter’s treatment. She has a neurological problem, and we’ve come here after doctors in an Indian hospital in Dhaka recommended that we come here. The treatment, tests and medicines are bleeding us dry.. But it’s her life, so we didn’t mind. But now, we have been rendered helpless. Our money is now illegal. What are we to do?” added Sheikh Salim Ali.
In the early 2000s, two main private hospitals in Kolkata – Ruby General Hospital and Peerless General Hospital – primarily treated Bangladeshi patients. But in the past decade, at least four have sprung up and an estimated 10,000 Bangladeshi patients are treated in each hospital every year, said a spokesperson for a private hospital. But while the government has mandated that state-run hospitals continue to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, private hospitals have consistently refused to take any denominations higher than Rs 100.
“We are still taking Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. But we will only be able to do so until November 14. After that, we don’t know what will happen. The government hasn’t specified what will happen then, and as far as the availability of money is concerned, it doesn’t seem like it’ll improve anytime soon,” said a government official, while adding that the state government had no authority to instruct private hospitals to accept the notes.
Meanwhile hundreds of Bangladeshi citizens continue to flock to banks, notes in hand – Notes that once represented the hope of getting treatment.
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