Fake doctors a risk to lives of workers in Assam’s tea gardens

Fake doctors are a menace. While a few of them practising in tea gardens have been nabbed, there could be more like them who have forged documents, stolen identities of genuine doctors and working at present in other tea gardens in Assam
Representational Image. (HT archive)
Representational Image. (HT archive)
Published on Aug 30, 2021 05:52 PM IST
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For 12 years, Simon Nag served several tea gardens in Assam as a medical officer. But his innings ended in June this year when police nabbed him for impersonating Dr Stephen Anthony, a doctor from Bengaluru presently based in Singapore.

The 37-year-old, who did not pass even his Class 10 exams, served as a doctor at Mokalbari Tea Estate in Dibrugarh district and was able to dupe many during his stint in other tea gardens as well. It goes without saying that Nag was risking the lives of thousands of tea garden workers.

However, Nag’s case is not an exception. In June itself, two other fake doctors working in tea garden hospitals were found in Dibrugarh district. One Eyakub Ali, the medical officer of Hatiali Tea Estate was nabbed for impersonating Dr Eyakub Ali Ahmed, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist working in Chirang district.

The same month, police in Dibrugarh registered a case against an unidentified person who was working as a doctor in Mancotta Tea Estate by impersonating Dr Hirak Das, a professor of anatomy at Guwahati Medical College Hospital (GMCH). The accused has been on the run since.

In September last year, Pankaj Kumar Nath (55), who was working as a doctor in Tinkhong Tea Estate was arrested by Dibrugarh police for practising for the past two years with the help of a forged MBBS certificate.

According to government figures, there are 803 big tea gardens spread across 27 districts of Assam and run by private companies. Nearly 1 million casual workers are estimated to be employed in these gardens, where healthcare and other basic facilities like housing and drinking water are among the worst in the state.

“Fake doctors are a menace. While a few of them practising in tea gardens have been nabbed, there could be more like them who have forged documents, stolen identities of genuine doctors and working at present in other tea gardens in Assam,” said Maj. (Retd.) Dr Jiten Borgohain, chairman of plantation doctors committee of Assam branch of Indian Medical Association (IMA).

Borgohain, who also works as a medical officer in a tea garden, said there are several reasons why these fake doctors manage to get hired in tea gardens.

Lack of uniformity employed by tea garden in appointments without any proper checks in some cases and the tendency to cut corners by appointing doctors on low salary are some of them.

“The job of a doctor in a tea garden is not very attractive to most doctors...low pay, poor facilities in the hospitals and threat to personal safety are some factors. This, sometimes, has tea gardens not scrutinising applications thoroughly and appointing those who agree to work for a lower salary,” he said.

He added that most of those who get appointed using fake certificates or stolen identities know a bit about what drugs should be prescribed for common illnesses and usually refer patients with serious complications or need of surgery to better government or private hospitals.

“These doctors are courteous with their patients and usually keep shifting from one garden to another every few years to avoid detection. We have talked to tea companies about the need to improve their hiring process. Also, authorities need to rein in companies who hire them without proper checks,” said Dr Borgohain.

Bidyananda Barkakoty, adviser of North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), an organisation of tea-planters which has around 150 members in Assam mentioned that fake doctors manage to get recruited as it is not possible for some employers to detect the forgeries and due to the scarcity of doctors sometimes appointments are made in haste.

“There’s always a shortage of doctors in tea gardens and due to incidents of workers attacking medical officers after deaths of patients or when someone becomes seriously ill during treatment, it’s very difficult for companies to find people willing to work in tea garden hospitals,” he said.

In September 2019, Dr Deven Dutta (73) died after workers in Teok Tea Estate in Jorhat, where he was employed, beat him up following the death of a worker. Seven doctors working in tea gardens had submitted resignations following the incident over fears of safety.

Earlier the same year, Dr PC Thakur, posted in Dikom Tea Estate in Dibrugarh suffered multiple injuries after workers attacked him following death of a woman labourer. In June this year, Dr Basanta Goswami, 81, posted in Majulighur Tea Estate in Biswanath district was manhandled by workers over Covid-19 restrictions.

Barkakoty said NETA would request Union minister of state for labour and employment Rameswar Teli, who hails from Assam and is a member of the tea-tribe community, to bring tea gardens in Assam under Employees’ State Insurance Scheme so that workers can avail better healthcare.

“Fake doctors are getting recruited as companies are cutting corners. There are several more fake medical officers working in tea gardens. The state government should start anti-quackery units to nab such cases,” said Dr Abhijit Neog, chief operating officer of a Guwahti-based private hospital.

Dr Neog’s investigation was crucial in the arrest of Simon Nag in June this year. He contacted Dr Stephen Anthony in Singapore and revealed that Nag was using his identity. A former employee of a major tea company, Neog’s investigations have led to arrests of 20 fake doctors across Assam till date.

According to Tea Plantation Labourers Act, 1951, all tea gardens are required to appoint doctors for their workers. While appointments are made by tea gardens, monitoring of their work is done by the state labour department through a medical officer (plantations) in each district. At present, most of these posts are lying vacant.

“In most districts, the posts of these doctors are vacant and even those who are there are not present most of the time. Till date, no study has been done on how the presence of fake doctors has affected the healthcare in tea gardens,” said Nabin Chandra Keot, vice-president of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), a Congress-backed organisation representing tea garden workers.

“There should be a uniform policy on recruiting doctors in tea gardens. Besides checking credentials of doctors who are working at present some survey needs to be carried out for nurse and pharmacists as well. We had submitted a memorandum in this regard two months ago to chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma,” he added.

In 2008, National Health Mission (NHM) Assam had introduced a public-private partnership (PPP) model to strengthen primary health facility in tea garden hospitals. The scheme gave funds to tea gardens to improve infrastructure as well as give additional benefits to doctors and healthcare workers.

In 2019-20, Assam government launched a scheme to provide all essential drugs free of cost to all tea garden hospitals. At present 150 hospitals are running under the PPP mode. Last year, the Centre allocated 843.75 lakhs to these hospitals spread across 11 districts.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021