At 70, Padma Shri Doctor Travels 160 Km Every Weekend To Treat Villagers For Free
Padma Shri Dr Arunoday Mondal treats over 12,000 patients in the Sunderbans for free every year. He travels 160 km from Kolkata every weekend to run his Sujan clinic.
As the weekend approaches, the city of Kolkata gears up to unwind and relax. But thoughts of leisure are the last thing on Dr Arunoday Mondal’s mind. As Saturday approaches, he readies himself for an arduous journey to Sujan — a free medical service centre started in the year 2000.
Located in one of the remotest areas of Hingalganj in West Bengal, this clinic is the doctor’s attempt at giving back to his community.
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Every weekend, for the last 23 years, Dr Arunoday Mondal has been waking up in the wee hours of the morning and driving to the Dum Dum Cantonment Railway Station. From here the 70-year-old boards a train to Hasnabad. Two hours later, on arriving at the village, he takes an autorickshaw to Lebukhali. The ride spans 30 km, but the destination is still not in sight.
The doctor must take a mechanised boat across the river to reach Hingalganj, from where Sujan is 12 km away. He completes this last stretch by motorbike.
Six hours and 160 km later, Dr Arunoday Mondal walks into Sujan where he says “hundreds” wait, their medical grievances at the ready. Bad road connectivity and abject poverty mean most of them have walked to Sujan. Their tired faces show it.
But as the doctor and patient see each other, hope is rekindled. The people’s ‘Sundarban ke Sujan’, as he is popularly called, is now here.
Dr Mondal’s reasons for setting up the free clinic in this remote part of the state were personal. “I grew up here,” he says. “This place [Chandrakhali Panchayat area of Hingalganj] has been my home. Growing up, I saw how tough it was for my community to reach a doctor. My grandfather, a homoeopathic doctor, would often treat patients for free. I watched and was inspired.”
Dr Mondal aspired to do the same. Following an MBBS from the Calcutta National Medical College, he worked at the Dr B C Roy Memorial Hospital for Children. But quit in 1980 to start his own practice.
However, thoughts of his native Hingalganj were constantly on his mind. “My socially conscious mind wanted to do something for the underprivileged people of Sundarbans,” he explains.
And in 2000, Dr Mondal couldn’t ignore his inner voice any longer.
Sujan — a ray of hope for the people of Sundarbans
For the first two years, Dr Mondal would consult patients for free at his paternal house in Hingalganj. His popularity soon grew and the space fell short. So, in 2000 he set up Sujan on a piece of land he purchased. “I run the two-storey centre myself without any government help.”
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Since the day the centre was flagged off, its doors have always been open to anyone and every one of the Sundarbans, provided they fall below the poverty line. The diaspora of patients include villagers, fishermen, local residents of Hasnabad and Adivasi families who live near Santiniketan.”
Though Dr Mondal consults only on weekends, his team of eight medical staff are always at the centre to help anyone. They assist patients with pathological tests, sonographies and CT scans. In addition to this, there is a physiotherapy centre at the clinic where paralytic and disabled persons come for regular therapy and exercise.
When the doctor isn’t busy consulting, he sets up eye checkup camps, diabetic detection and prevention camps, gynaecological checkup camps, cancer detection and prevention camps, blood donation camps, etc. Sujan has become a beacon of hope for the people.
And as the influx of patients is increasing, Dr Mondal shares his plans to bolster the facility’s capacity. “We are planning on starting a 16-bed unit soon — four beds will be reserved for snake bite patients, six beds for expecting mothers, another four for medical emergencies and two beds for neonatal care.”
He adds that the snake bite ward is of prime importance. Elaborating on the reason, he says, “Hingalganj is in such a remote area. Government facilities are not enough to meet the needs of the people. The Sundarbans are popular for their biodiversity, which includes snakes, so snake bite cases are very common.”
Despite the government arranging anti-venom facilities, the doctor shares that these are insufficient.
“In my experience, I have witnessed 30 people dying of snake bites every year,” he notes. One of the cases is etched in his memory. “I had attended a marriage in the village. Two days after the wedding, the young bride of 18 was sleeping outside the house when a snake bit her. There wasn’t any anti-venom available and she died.”
Service rooted in love
Today, as Dr Mondal is able to put the smiles back on so many faces through his service, he says life has come full circle. “I used to feel sad seeing the miserable conditions of the people of my village when I was young. There are government facilities but these are far. Poor roads, no electricity and poor network in these areas mean a lot of hardships for these people.”
Dr Mondal’s efforts to bring change in these areas haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2020 he was conferred the Padma Shri for his remarkable contribution.
Speaking about it, he says, “It is after all an honour. But the real honour is the love I get from people and their respect. That makes me more proud.”
What is commendable is his attitude about serving the underprivileged. He hasn’t taken a single day off not even at the peak of the pandemic when things were bad.
“I cannot afford to not go to the clinic,” is his argument.
He recounts an instance where after performing a routine checkup on a pregnant woman, he suggested she go to a government hospital for her delivery. “But the poor roads meant she never reached the hospital. When they finally did, the baby had died inside the womb.”
Dr Mondal wants to ensure the people of his beloved Sundarbans should never have to experience the side effects of a negligent healthcare system. “I will continue doing what I can for my people, for free, for as long as I live.”
Edited by Pranita Bhat
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