Why progressive youth marched to Gangtok “We are not demanding anything extra, just what is prescrib

Gangtok, 27 Jan:

Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum started off in 2016 as a collective of youth finding common ground in their desire to instill progressive outlook and a scientific bent of mind among the young here. And that is the aim they pursued until their other expressed aim of protesting injustice and denial gathered steam and brought them to the streets and into the front pages of newspapers. Some hundred of them are currently on dharna outside the District Administrative Centre in Gangtok, their residence here since they marched into Gangtok after covering 110 KMs from Gyalshing on foot on 23 January demanding that the State Government live up to its written commitment of appointing the 100-bedded District Hospital at Gyalshing, West Sikkim, with facilities and manpower prescribed under the Indian Public Health Standards of the National Health Mission.

They remain unsatisfied with the State’s response, and on Republic Day, which also marks their foundation day, took their protest to the next level by issuing a statewide appeal to all organizations, whether non-governmental, social or political, to support their cause and join their protest. This, with the caveat that the supporting groups do so exclusively in pursuit of the demand for basic [as dictated by IPHS] health facilities at the Gyalshing District Hospital and not to further their own organizational or political agendas. Political parties, for instance, have been invited to join the protest so long as they leave their flags and agendas behind.

So what is it that has riled the SPYF, this collection of youth aged primarily between 19 to 26, so much that they have put all their other plans and engagements on hold to invest time and energy to try and ensure that the Gyalshing District Hospital provides at least the basic health services to people of the district?

“We noticed that the healthcare infrastructure in West district was especially weak; people with even minor health conditions would get referred elsewhere for treatment. This was discomfiting because many who visit government hospitals in West Sikkim cannot even afford the travel costs to seek medical care elsewhere,” informs Rupen Karki, one of the core-group members of SPYF.

SPYF, by the way, does not have any organizational hierarchy. There are no official posts in the group which has around six in the core and expands out to include around 60 actively involved members.

“We have a horizontal, collective leadership by discussion,” explains Mr Karki.

Members of the collective are all products of government schools and govt colleges with most of them hailing from rural corners and belonging to farming households.

In fact, when SummitTimes reached the venue of the dharna late on the evening of 26 January, the protesters were in the midst of animated “discussions,” something, we are told, they engage in on a regular basis especially before and after a major decision is taken.

It must have been after a discussion like this that SPYF decided in end-Jan 2018, a year back, to address the issue of poor healthcare facilities in West Sikkim.

Since most of the members are academically inclined, as they researched the issue, they learned that as per IPHS norms, which have been place since the year 2012, the government is required to provide an easily verifiable set of infrastructure and medical personnel at its different hospitals and health centres. These were found wanting in West Sikkim.

“Imagine, it costs a villager around Rs 300 to come to Gyalshing for treatment from Karjee, a remote village here. If they are referred to Gangtok, it will cost them around Rs 700 on travel alone. Most people cannot afford even the travel costs. And there are other expenses to take into consideration as well,” stresses Prakash Parajuly , another member of the core-group.

Such high costs would be difficult to bear for those who, ironically, have to visit government hospitals and cannot afford services of a private hospital.

On 04 Feb, 2018, SPYF initiated its first step towards demands that the IPHS norms be met in West Sikkim, and after a signature campaign in the district, an application demanding the same was submitted to the hospital authorities and the District Collector.

And then they waited.

When nothing came about even till July last year, SPYF called for a rally to press for their demands. Some 1,500 people joined their rally and a fresh memorandum addressed to the Health Minister was drafted. The demand was the same – ensure that all facilities and manpower prescribed under IPHS were provided at the Gyalshing Hospital.

A few days later, SPYF members arrived in Gangtok with the memorandum wanting to submit it to the Health Minister. When the Minister’s office refused to accept the memorandum, the youth sat on a dharna outside his office. 22 hours into their dharna at the Health Secretariat, the memorandum was accepted and a written assurance, signed by the Health Minister, the Health Secretary and the Principal Director, issued.

This assurance, marked to the DC, West, refers to the SPYF memorandum and commits “continue to work for the improvement of all District Hospitals, including District Hospital Gyalshing.”

Specifically for the Gyalshing Hospital, the letter assures that 90% of the IPHS norms for the 100-bedded District Hospital at Gyalshing “will be achieved within one month and the remaining requirements will be taken care of within 03 months.”

SPYF returned confident that their movement had succeeded and returned to their lives. Over the following months, visible efforts were made to improve the conditions at the hospital, but, as per SPYF, not enough was done even to meet the most basic of the norms.

“Yes, they have an ultrasound machine now and occasionally an ultrasound is also done. They hold surgeries sometimes also, but there is no consistency in the service despite all the claims and promotions,” insists Mr Parajuly.

The three-month deadline assured by the Minister ended in November last and when the basic IPHS norms remained unmet, SPYF decided on its Gangtok Chalo march and began their walk from Gyalshing on 20 January, arriving here on the 23rd and have been sitting on dharna here ever since.

The youth on dharna are clearly passionate about the demand and insist they are not being stubborn or misguided. Claims, it may be recalled, have been made about how they are being unclear and stubborn.

“How can insisting that the authorities abide by prescribed norms and commitments they have themselves made, be called stubborn? As for being unclear, even that is unfair because we are not demanding anything extra, just the requirements prescribed under IPHS norms,” Mr Karki points out.

There are also whispers doubting the timing of the protest, coming as close as it does to the elections.

The SPYF members dismiss this suggestion by pointing out that the Gangtok Chalo march was the culmination of an issue they picked up in February last year when elections were distant, and it stretched this long because the concerned authorities have been dilly-dallying.

“We have been at it since Feb 2018 so one cannot say that our movement is politically timed or inclined. If anything, the election cycle is intruding,” they scoff, adding, “Our demand is now a year old so it is unfair to cast any aspersions of political opportunism on us.”

Since the SPYF marchers arrived in Gangtok, they have been visited by Health officials a few times, but they remain unconvinced. So what is it that they want first?

“We want the three signatories of the February assurance letter – the Minister, Secretary and Principal Director - to meet us together so that we can discuss and debate the situation, otherwise nothing concrete will emerge,” Mr Karki explains while addressing the criticism that they have refused offers for discussions by Health officials since their arrival in Gangtok. The offers for discussion have not included the Health Minister thus far.

At the time of writing this report, such a meeting had not yet come about, and the youth remain camped at the dharna site, a site which offers no facilities beyond the space to lay out “profiles” and stack their beddings and sleep exposed to the elements. They lack access to water and toilets, and the weather too has not been gentle. But they hold on to their position, buoyed by the spontaneous support they have received from the lay people and boosting their morale and keeping their spirits alive with their progressive songs and evening discussions.