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Boat clinics serve India's isolated island villages

GUWAHATI, India — We load up in an SUV and make our way through the streets of Guwahati. It is raining, and much of this major city in northeastern India is flooded. Cars, men pedaling rickshaws and our SUV slowly edge their way through the water-filled streets.

The water looks orange, stained from the clay that has eroded from the surrounding hills. We are headed to meet a boat that will take us and a group of medical staff to a remote island on the Brahmaputra River.

A dark cloud forms overhead. If it rains too hard, the villagers are less likely to come meet the temporary clinic the medical staff will set up on the island. If it storms, our boat won’t be able to go at all. We are all in the hands of the rain.

About 3 million people live along the Brahmaputra, a massive river that stretches from Tibet to Bangladesh. The boat clinics, run by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) with funding from the Indian government and UNICEF, work in 10 of the 15 districts on the river. They have reached over 300,000 people since they began in 2005.

The boats serve some of Assam’s most socially and geographically isolated communities. Most do not have electricity, secondary schools, hospitals, banks, post offices, toilets or much of anything.

“The facilities we take for granted on the mainland haven’t been possible to have on an island,” said Sanjoy Hazarika, the managing trustee of C-NES.

The villages are a collection of thatch-roof homes, rice paddies, farm animals and children. Lots of children. In some of the villages families don't use any method of family planning, and it is common for them to have seven or eight kids.

When the villagers get sick or need care, they have relied on people who pretend to be doctors and prescribe medication but who have no training. The boat clinics bring many of these communities health care for the first time.

Guwahati lives in many centuries at once. The previous day, we had driven 10 minutes south of the downtown area, which has chains like Reebok and tiny kiosks selling cell phones. We saw two men riding down the street bareback on an elephant. They had presumably come into town from a hill village where they use the elephant to help with farming.

Today, we head west along the Brahmaputra. Boats that offer dinner cruises stand at the dock. A little farther along we spot a group of men gathered in a huddle, bidding on goats. We pass flourescent green fields. An old man in a loincloth walks a cow on a rope across a bridge. Girls in matching green and white saris walk to school.

We zigzag through the mud to get to the riverbank. The boat cook jumps out, takes off his shoes, pulls up his pants and wades into the mud, directing our vehicle over the least-likely-to-get-stuck route.

We make it to the boat. Now to the island.

This series is part of a collaboration on maternal mortality, supported by the Pulitzer Center in collaboration with the Huffington Post.

Learn more about this reporting project.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India