A hospital on the ridge

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Chautara – I

For me, the news of Chautara raid on the night of April 23, 2006 came as a rude shock. Not that we were not unfamiliar with the way infrastructures were being selectively destroyed in the last few years. Why and how a hospital became a target if the purported reason for the Maoist rebellion was to help the downtrodden and weak? It was more painful for having been involved in is construction over 40 years ago.

I never thought that I would ever be writing anything on Chautara let alone about the hospital. But on seeing the TV footage of the carnage then, things that had long remained forgotten came back flooding in. I do not recall everything in great detail but some facts related to it may be of interest to someone, somewhere.

As with most hilltop settlements, Chautara sits on a ridge and the hospital was located even higher to the north beyond the tundikhel. The plan of the 10-bed hospital was prepared by Masaka Tanahashi, only architect among the first ever group of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV). Tanahashi spoke very little and chain-smoked while working. He emphasized on using local materials to the extent possible. It was a simple plan with the isolated hospital blocks linked on either side by central corridor. All blocks had corrugated roofing with plank ceiling while roughly-dressed stones formed the main external wall. Chautara, otherwise, had a small health post, at the same location. Quarters for doctors and nurses flanked either side of the main thoroughfare to the south. The site offered a grand view all around including Dhulikhel afar. Lights of vehicles plying Panchkhal-Dhulikhel section were visible at night.

It was the only construction site, outside the Kathmandu Valley, under the division I was attached then. I had three supervisors to help me look after 8/10 ongoing works in the Valley. It was only possible to visit Chautara once every two month or so. Given the problem with transporting construction materials, the progress used to be quite slow even then. The contract got awarded to a group of locals. They apparently had no experience in tender formalities as it was their first formal job. The most crucial of which was filling in the rates for different items of work required to be done. Ironically, ignorance was the real reason why they got the contract in the first place. The woodworks rate was required to be quoted for “100 cubic feet”, but having entered just Rs 25 (a reasonable price for 1cft then) they had committed to deliver 100 cft at that rate! The “Chautara Five” ended learning a very expensive and bitter lesson as a result. The establishment was also at some fault for having only maintained the English version of the document.

The story of Chautara Hospital would not be complete without recalling the enthusiasm and dedication shown by the doctor who was working in the hospital then. His interest was to get the hospital running at the earliest, and he hence took a great interest in the construction works. He would even run everywhere including the Finance Ministry for release of funds. He also acted as the de facto site supervisor during our absence. But the contractors took it as an unnecessary nose-poking by the doctor. It was no surprise that the relation between the two was far from cordial. The building got completed during his tenure but it took much longer as the contractors faced severe cash crunch and never got tired of lamenting about the mistake they made.

I have no contact with Dr. Ananda Pradhan nor know the circumstances under which he left Nepal. He is said to be living in Denmark since many years with his wife Gaya. Unmarried, she used to be the senior of the three nurses at Chautara. Having devoted his time and energy in getting the Chautara hospital built, I cannot guess how badly the good doctor and his wife must have felt on hearing about the hospital blow up, possibly where their love bloomed.

(Dr. Ananda Pradhan and his wife Gaya)

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