I grew up in a fairly middle class family. So, when someone in the family fell ill, a quick consultation at a private hospital of minimum repute was sought. AIIMS and Safdarjung referrals were available to us because we happen to know people. Those who couldn’t afford to alight at the driveways of one of the swanky super-specialties, state governments remained a depressing last and perhaps only choice. The sight of patients lying strewn about in passages, the sight of open wounds, the feeling of your loved one lying on a rickety old stretcher, and standing in long queues with sick people in poorly-ventilated spaces made one feel helpless even in the pursuit of revival.
So, when I was driving past Rani Bagh some days ago, I came across a bright red metal container with ‘Aam Aadmi Mohalla Clinic’ stamped on it. At first glance, it appears like an ode to the International Red Cross movement, which opened the world’s eyes towards the right to health. What drew my attention more than the colours red and white was the use of a shipping container. Having been a student of peace and conflict studies, it was common to come across reference papers on refugees from Iraq and Syria being housed in shipping containers in German towns.
An ISO shipping container, by definition, is a standardised steel box that can be repurposed for universal cargo transportation. It is often touted by architects as the potential answer to the global housing problem. Delhi has a migration rate of 43%, of whom 88% are from other states and 63% are from rural areas. This data point was brought to light by Prof. Chinmay Tumbe of IIM Ahmedabad, urban economics expert, as he deconstructed the impact of the migration crisis of 2020 unleashed by the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 crisis in India. But, in Delhi, the problem of housing doesn’t limit itself to well-constructed homes. It is about drainage, sewage, quarrelling road owning agencies and the grey areas of land use rules. However, a neatly cut out container looks like a better deal than slum squalor.
I stepped into the containers, which combined, were the size of half of that of a world-class badminton court. It contains within it – an examination room, a reception and a waiting area and a pharmacy accessible from outside. There’s also a washroom. The insides were air-conditioned and I could feel a happy chill on the medical-grade stainless steel countertops. In a heat-burnt city, an air-conditioned oasis like this one will remain an inviting idea for a long time. The flooring is fashioned out of microbial vinyl, it looks elegant and feels durable, the makers of the clinic have perhaps kept in mind that the floors will face heavy footfall.
The firm that has built this is Architecture Discipline, and the deep red shell of the Clinic adorns its logo. One simple Google Search will tell you that the same firm also made the India Pavilion at the Hannover Messe in 2015. Central and state governments are now engaging experts to envision and execute public welfare projects and it seems the Government of NCT of Delhi has taken such an engagement to a whole new level.
On the question of sustainability, the metal container Mohalla Clinic scores 10/10 because it is made from discarded containers from container yards in Delhi and Haryana. Merely 30 minutes away from Rani Bagh is a place called Mayapuri where a huge scrap industry operates and one visit to this place will leave you blue and black, aside from showing you that repurposing metal is in fact the need of the hour.
In July 2018, a New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had released a report titled ‘Clunkered: Combating Dumping of Used Vehicles — A roadmap for Africa and South Asia’, which stressed the need to reinvent the concept of extended producer responsibility making it incumbent upon the manufacturer to take back, recycle and ensure environment friendly disposal of vehicles. It is not merely plastic that is piling up on our land and in our seas but also metal that is dying for a desperate rebirth.
When I stepped out of new red mohalla clinic, and spoke to someone from the Delhi Government right outside, I was told that these clinics are pre-fabricated and the lights, electric and furnishing fixtures are pre-installed, which means the on-site construction is minimal. That is when I realised the true potential of this technique in taking healthcare to every single mohalla in India. Imagine little towns in Uttar Pradesh and tapering roads that lead to them, imagine dense slum pockets in Mumbai, imagine hilly areas in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh where construction is both a boon and a curse, these easy-to-transport hospitals can spring up easily.
This new Mohalla Clinic has made driving around West Delhi in pandemic times a little less monotonous. Public Healthcare infrastructure can serve a purpose greater than curing patients, it can restore a nation’s pride.