New Delhi: Every fortnight, Abdul Samad, 21, takes his mother for medical evaluation and treatment, to Safdarjung Hospital, 12 km to the west from their home in the teeming inner lanes of Batla House in south Delhi’s Okhla neighbourhood.
Samad is up at 5 am to ensure they reach one of Delhi’s largest and busiest government hospitals to beat the long queue for treatment. But they must still stand two hours in a queue before his mother sees a doctor.
Samad is wary of the crowd of patients, and fearful of Covid-19 infection, the anxiety worse after a crippling second wave in April and May brought Delhi to its knees.
Each trip to Safdarjung hospital costs Samad Rs 400, made more expensive by rising fuel costs. It is not a sum the family can afford. The only earning member is Samad’s brother, a salesman, whose monthly salary is Rs 10,000, a major part of which goes towards rent.
There are five private hospitals in Okhla, but Samad’s family cannot afford any of them.
“A government hospital in the area would have saved me these costs,” Samad told Article 14.
Okhla has no government hospital. The five private ones—the high-end Indraprastha Apollo and Fortis Escorts, then Holy Family and Al-Shifa hospitals, and the smallest of the five, Cribs Hospital—are mostly unaffordable to the people of Batla House, an economically depressed neighbourhood.
Grazing Cattle Where A Hospital Should Be
The World Health Organisation recommends five beds per population of 1,000. Delhi’s Economic Survey 2020-21 said there were 2.74 beds per 1,000 population, government and private, in Delhi; the city has 1.05 govt hospital beds per 1,000 population.
Okhla has around 350,000 voters on its rolls. In Delhi, about three-fourths of any constituency’s residents are on electoral rolls—the estimated population is then about 450,000 lakh for the Okhla assembly constituency. Between the five private hospitals there are just about 1,460 beds, which makes it 3.24 private beds per 1,000 of population.
In December 2007, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) allotted a 6,318-sq-m area in the Sarita Vihar area of Okhla for a 100-bed government hospital. In January 2010, then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit laid its foundation stone.
The only activity evident at the site is grazing cattle.
Over the 14 years since allocation, the 100-bed hospital became a 300-bed plan in 2017, then 350-bed on paper and then a 460 bed facility, as Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain announced. Not a brick was laid.
In the meantime, the Delhi government inaugurated three hospitals, all approved five years after Sarita Vihar hospital was allotted land.
The new hospitals came up in Hindu-majority areas, at Ambedkar Nagar, a Dalit-dominated area, approved in 2013 with 200 beds and revised to 600 beds; in Burari, approved in 2012 with 200 beds and revised to 768; and in Dwarka, the Indira Gandhi Super Speciality hospital, which opened in May 2021 after construction started in 2014—its beds increasing from the planned 700 to 1,725.
Residents Allege Bias
Residents questioned the authorities, and alleged communal bias for the delay, made even more stark during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The government treats us like second-class citizens,” said Rizwan Khalifa, 27, a resident of Okhla and member of Okhla Youth Federation, founded in 2020 to raise issues of basic infrastructure—drainage, roads, street lights and garbage disposal for Okhla
“I’ve spent most of my childhood and adult life in this area,” said Rizwan. “While the rest of Delhi was developed, this area was marginalized. We are denied even basic amenities like a hospital.”
About 40% of Okhla’s population is Muslim. On the bank of the Yamuna river, minutes from the borders to Noida and Faridabad, it comprises many residential colonies, such as Zakir Nagar, Batla House, Abul Fazal Enclave, Okhla Head, Jamia Nagar, Okhla Vihar, Johri Farm and Ghaffar Manzil.
With pockets of relatively middle-class areas, these are congested, densely populated cramped localities that often lack access to clean water and electricity.
The constituency also includes the affluent planned, residential neighbourhoods of New Friends Colony and Sarita Vihar, dominated by Hindus. The gap in basic facilities between these colonies and the Muslim-dominated settlements of Okhla assembly constituency is apparent.
The area is best known for the 100-year-old central university Jamia Millia Islamia, which moved from Aligarh to Delhi’s Okhla in 1935. The university and adjoining locality of Shaheen Bagh were the epicentres of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement, led by students, teachers and women.
Given its proximity to the university, many residents of Muslim Okhla are students, academics, professors, historians and campus staff. The inner lanes are dotted with cafes and restaurants.
Despite the students and campus staff who live here, the difference of the unplanned sprawl of largely Muslim Okhla with similarily middle-class Sarita Vihar and Jasola, is stark.
The original Okhla residents in the 1970s and early 1980s were from lower-income groups, pushed to the edges of Delhi for lack of options. In recent decades the middle class and upper middle class, those who can afford accommodation in better Delhi localities, have moved here because of communal biases against renting to Musims.
After Hindu mobs demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 and India witnessed communal riots, the area saw a surge of Muslim families relocate here, a ‘safe space’.
Taha Ibrahim, a student of economics at Jamia Millia Islamia and an activist for the Campus Front of India, a largely Islamic student organisation, said he had lived in Okhla for 20 years. “The only semblance of governance is police stations and chowkis (outposts),” said Ibrahim. “It’s a huge population here but basic amenities are scarce. There is still no government hospital. Before every election, parties campaign about 'Muslim issues'; they believe people will not vote on development matters.”
A Hospital Lost In Promises & Paperwork
In July 2014, the Delhi government sanctioned Rs 87.14 crore for the 100-bed facility with diagnostic facilities, an emergency, an intensive care unit, operation theatres and day care. Principal secretary, Public Works Department (PWD), Arun Baroka told the media in July 2014 that the paperwork was complete and on-site work was expected to start in September 2014.
That never happened.
“We petitioned chairman of Delhi Minorities Commission Zafarul Islam Khan on 25 August 2017 about the delay in the hospital’s construction,” said Ata Khan, a lawyer, social worker and one of the residents who pursued the hospital project with the authorities.
“He (Islam Khan) forwarded our complaint to the Delhi government,” said Ata Khan. “The health and family welfare department on 7 November 2017 told us the hospital had been upgraded from 100 to 300 beds and that a consultant would be appointed.”
It was a year before architecture and planning firm Arcop Associates was appointed in November 2018, Ata Khan said.
Article 14 was informed by Arcop Associates that Nitin Gupta was the director of Arcop Associates associated with the Sarita Vihar hospital project. We sought comment over a week from Gupta over email, phone and on WhatsApp. There was no response. We will update this story if he does respond.
A plan for a Covid hospital in Sarita Vihar designed by Arcop Associates and dated June 2021 is posted on a government site.
Two years ago, amid murmurs that construction would be delayed, Ata Khan and others met Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi assembly legislator Atishi Singh in January 2019 and demanded her intervention.
“She (Singh) promised us she will help expedite the project,” said Ata Khan. “But that did not happen.” Article 14 sought comment from Singh over 20 days on phone and via mail. We also texted questions to her media coordinator Waseem Shanu.
Ata Khan said that on 19 June 2019, Pradeep Kumar (who died a year ago), executive engineer of PWD, applied for environmental clearance to a building plan. According to a 2019 affidavit, the proposed hospital is described as a 350-bed facility with emphasis on mother and child healthcare along with other related departments. The project’s cost was stated as Rs 300.77 crores.
“By the time we got all the clearances, the Aam Aadmi Party was in power in Delhi,” said Parvez Alam, president of the Okhla block Congress committee. “But in their seven years in government, they are only doing PR stunts."
On 27 June 2021, Okhla assembly constituency’s elected representative, member of legislative assembly Amanatullah Khan, posted a video message on his official Facebook page, in which he said a 460-bed hospital would soon be built in Okhla’s Sarita Vihar. Delhi health minister Jain also posted a video on Twitter and Facebook talking of eight new hospitals—this video also included the promise of a hospital in Sarita Vihar with 460 beds.
Misplaced Priorities, Creaking Infrastructure
Residents criticised Amanatullah Khan for prioritizing gardens and a gateway instead of pushing for the hospital.
“Okhla’s residents struggled for beds during the second wave of Covid-19, and Amanatullah Khan inaugurated Freedom Fighters Fountain at Tikona Park in July and councillor Wajid Khan was busy inaugurating the Okhla Dwar,” alleged Waqaur Azam, a teacher of maths and social sciences in an NGO-run school called Tara and resident of Noor Nagar, Okhla.
Azam said the Arvind Kejriwal government seemed to have invested more on advertisements, Rs 800 crore, than on Delhi’s health facilities. “Their misplaced priorities are an affront to Okhla’s residents who voted for development in the 2020 assembly election,” said Azam.
If Okhla’s large private hospitals are unaffordable, the smaller ones can’t cope with the rush.
A medical worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, at Shaheen Bagh’s Cribs Hospital told Article 14 that almost 100 patients visited the outpatient department every day and at least 150 babies were delivered every month.
“But we can't handle serious cases,” said the medical worker. “We refer those to Apollo Hospital, for those who can afford it. Those who can’t, have to go a distance. We have just 30 doctors and supporting staff and five ventilators, of which only two are functional."
In April 2021, Amanatullah Khan announced a 30-bed Covid-19 facility in the auditorium of a school, the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Noor Nagar—the only makeshift arrangement government set up for Okhla’s residents. The facility was not equipped for critical care and only admitted patients with mild symptoms.
In July 2021, the Okhla Youth Federation organised a peaceful protest at the proposed hospital’s site. Amanatullah Khan met the 100-odd agitating residents and promised that construction would start by November 2021.
Article 14 unsuccessfully tried to contact Amanatullah Khan many times over 20 days over phone and via whatsapp messages.
Khan’s promise was of little solace for Okhla’s residents, who live in fear of a third wave of Covid-19. “We will not be placated by half-hearted attempts," said Rizwan. "MLA sahab (Khan) told us construction will start by end-November. If it doesn’t, we will protest again."
(Arbab Ali is an activist of Left-affiliated student body AISA. He and Neha Waila are students of post-graduate history at Jamia Millia Islamia.)