Dalli-Rajhara is a small mining town in interior Chhattisgarh. It has a single road running through it, and a dim shade of orange, thanks to the iron-ore mines feeding Bhilai Steel Plant, hanging in the air. There are three main chowks, and each has a billboard rather big for the otherwise unassuming place, all carrying a similar message of protest against an arrest. The text varies, but they carry the same set of pictures —of a thin, bespectacled man in a kurta, handcuffed, being led by a policeman.
On Saturday, that man, Dr Saibal Jana, chief physician of Dalli-Rajhara’s Shaheed Hospital, known locally as the hospital for the poor that never returns a patient, walked free. He was out on bail after spending more than a week in jail for an incident that took place 24 years ago.
On July 1, 1992, in Bhilai, then still under Madhya Pradesh, and a separate Chhattisgarh still eight years away, thousands of workers organised a massive protest outside the old powerhouse in the city’s Sector 1. Janaklal Thakur, former local MLA and president of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), said, “The companies in Bhilai had laid off 4,000 workers for forming trade unions, and we were protesting that. The then state minister for labour, Kailash Joshi, was to come and meet us for negotiations. But he cancelled his visit (at the last moment), and the crowd grew restive.”
The police stepped in, and in the ensuing firing 17 people were killed. “Along with more than 50 others, Dr Jana was named in the case. His involvement was only limited to giving medical attention to (injured) people, but the police still included him in the case,” Thakur claimed.
He was arrested on March 16, 2016, for being an “absconder”.
On Saturday, he arrived at a Durg court with Janaklal Thakur and three others from the CMM. Minutes after the bail hearing wound up, with the order yet to come, advocate Gulab Singh Patel, secretary of Durg Bar Association, sat in the association’s office, earnestly reassuring Alpana Jana, the doctor’s wife. “Advocate-sahab, I don’t want to say anything else. It is just a one-point programme for me: he should be released. He is not a man who wants all this attention, but the hospital will not be able to function without him. He is a good man,” she said nervously.
In a calm, measured voice, Patel, Dr Jana’s counsel, told her, “He hadn’t even been told all this time that he was named in the case. The police booked him as an absconder, although he had worked in the hospital every day for these past 23 years. But the court has to follow procedure; and because he hadn’t come, had to arrest him. He should be free by evening.”
Ninety kilometres away at Shaheed Hospital, Dipankar Sengupta, 63, Dr Jana’s classmate at National Medical College, Kolkata, said, “The hospital was started in 1981 as a small dispensary by Shankar Guha Niyogi and Chhattisgarh Mine Srameek Sangh (mine workers’ union, the parent body of CMM), and Dr Jana was among those who started it. Others like Dr Binayak Sen were also involved, but Dr Jana stayed here throughout.”
Given its principle of never turning away a patient, the hospital’s corridors are always teeming with patients. In a large radius, this is the only hospital which gives proper healthcare at massively discounted rates. People now come from as far as 150 km in Maharashtra. Dr Abhikit Gadewar explained why: “We charge Rs 20 for the first OPD visit, and Rs 10 for the second. To stay in the hospital, indoor charges are Rs 5.”
There are nine doctors and more than 50 nurses. Dr Gadewar says. “Until a few years ago, we just about broke even. But we believed in equality in healthcare, so every one was admitted. (Schemes such as) Rashtriya Swasthya Beema Yojana and Mukhyamantri Swasthya Beema Yojana have helped us for the last few years. The state has distributed smart cards with an insurance of Rs 30,000, and many illnesses are covered under it. Post-treatment, most patients can pay through that…which helps with salaries, and even construction of a maternal healthcare extension.”
About the chief physician, Dr Gadewar said, “He takes care of all complex surgeries. Most young doctors come for two purposes: to serve the poor, and to train under Dr Jana.”