In 2005, Samuel Lalhruaizela, an 18-year-old resident of Aizawl, in Mizoram, secured admission to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences at Sevagram village in the Wardha district of Maharashtra. At the time, he told me, he had neither heard of the medical college where he had been admitted, nor the area in which it was situated. Lalhruaizela recalled what the dean told his father and him when they visited the university: “You’ve come a very long way.” Indeed, they had. The state of Mizoram does not have a medical college—all aspiring medical practitioners from the state are compelled to travel outside their home state to study.
Lalhruaizela told me that although he knew how to read the Hindi script, the only words he knew at the time were hathi (elephant) and mej (table). He added that he was still unsure whether it was he or his classmates who had a bigger culture-shock after their interactions: he was frequently asked whether Mizoram had televisions in the state and whether the state actually did not have “even one medical college.” Lalhruaizela said he understood why it was unusual for them, considering the fact that Wardha, despite being one of the smaller districts in Maharashtra, had two medical colleges. “It didn’t matter how much I tried to make them understand we aren’t too backward. A state that doesn’t have even one medical college, after all, just can’t be perceived to be a developed state,” he said.
Mizoram suffers from a severe shortage of doctors in the state, especially in rural areas. The state’s health minister, Lal Thanzara, has attributed the absence of a medical college as one of the reasons for the same. In early June 2017, this issue of a shortage of doctors in the state flared-up in the Kolasib district. The state government’s health department issued an order transferring a surgeon from Kolasib to another town, Serchhip. Dr Zothansanga Zadeng, the surgeon from Kolasib whom the government proposed transferring, is the only surgeon at the district’s government hospital. The surgeon at Serchhip had recently been shifted to Lunglei town because the surgeon there had died. At a press conference on 9 June, Thanzara told the media that the state government’s rationale was that since another surgeon was currently employed at Kolasib under the National Health Mission—the central government’s flagship health-sector initiative—the town would accept Zadeng’s transfer. But that was not how it turned out.
On 6 June, a joint action committee comprising the Kolasib district units of Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) and Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP)—the state’s apex students’ union and womens’ body respectively—and several civil society organisations launched an indefinite blockade on the National Highway 54, the state’s main lifeline for essential commodities. According to a press release issued by the JAC, the town did not have a surgeon on a regular basis since 2008, when a surgery specialist was transferred out. It stated that although a replacement was found in July 2013, he too had left to pursue higher studies just a month later, and the town only had a new surgeon, Zadeng, since March 2015. Gaby Ngente, a close relative of Zadeng, told me that the residents of the district also virtually put the doctor under house arrest—the JAC’s volunteers kept a watch over him for weeks to prevent him from leaving, although his movements within the town were not restricted.
Four days later, the blockade was lifted after the state government withdrew the transfer order. A compromise had been struck: at the press conference, Thanzara said that the townspeople of Serchhip, the chief minister’s constituency, were willing to have the NHM surgeon at Kolasib instead of Zadeng. However, the blockade had exacted a major toll: fish was almost impossible to find while vendors were beginning to run out of eggs in the markets of the state’s capital Aizawl. Most filling stations had shut and put up signs declaring that the stations had “No Diesel” and “No Petrol,” and the prices of cabbages and tomatoes had doubled. (All these items are trucked in from neighboring Assam through NH 54 since Mizoram produces little of most food items and does not produce fuel.)