"For all serious medical cases, we have to drive all the way to the Kozhikode Medical College, 65 kms away. And by the time we get there, the patient is mostly dead, so what's the use?" Shameer, who drives a jeep in Kalpetta town, sighs. For him and many others in the town, the number one priority expected from the next elected MP from Wayanad parliamentary constituency is the realisation of a super-speciality medical college in the district on the lines of the one in Kozhikode.
"There are other smaller, private hospitals here, but the doctors aren't so good. Isn't it a shame that after nearly 70 years of the state being formed, Wayanad, which remains so backward, still doesn't have a medical college?" he asks.
Cab and jeep drivers like Shameer are often expected to hurtle down the zig-zag road of the Western Ghats, complete with nine hair-pin curves, as they make their way from Kalpetta to the plains of Kozhikode to take seriously-ill patients to the Medical College. The journey, at best, takes a minimum of one-and-a-half hours and is considered horrifying for relatives of those who battle life-threatening illnesses.
An advanced public-sector hospital in Wayanad has been a dream for the local people, unfortunately tangled in bureaucratic red-tape. Land acquisition and finding financial aid for the project has been tardy and hopeless despite change in governments. The project is essential as the district is home to the largest tribal population, almost 18 per cent according to the last census, in the state. Several indigenous communities suffer from lack of access to healthcare and are unable to afford the huge costs of private healthcare. In existing government institutions, complaints of absence of doctors especially on weekends are regular in this part of the state.
Another infrastructure demand in Wayanad is that of a railway line, which if realised, would provide a faster transportation route for the locals as compared to the perennially clogged mountain roads. A project to connect Karnataka's Mysore through the Western Ghats and passing through towns like Mananthavady with Thalassery in Kerala remains on paper. While the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited has given the nod to its feasibility, hopes of it getting funds in last year's union budget were dashed.
An auto-rickshaw driver in Kalpetta, who did not pulge his name, said the railway project must be delivered by the state and central governments as it carries the potential to not just link two states, but boost tourist potential of Wayanad.
The hill district, home to verdant coffee and spice plantations and alluring tracts of the Ghats, draws droves of tourists, mostly IT professionals from cities like Bengaluru and Mysuru on weekends. Currently, they take the NH766 connecting Kozhikode and Kollegal, passing through the Bandipur wildlife reserve. For the past few months, the highway remains closed between 9 pm and 6 am from both ends after several incidents of vehicles colliding with elephants. Cab drivers like Shameer demand that the timings be relaxed as it has resulted in lesser tourist inflow into Wayanad.
With Congress president Rahul Gandhi pitching himself as a candidate from Wayanad, alongside his party's traditional pocket-borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, there is renewed hope among locals that all these demands would be fulfilled by their star candidate. While he's up against CPI candidate PP Suneer and NDA candidate Thushar Vellappally, almost no one on the streets of Kalpetta have an iota of doubt about his chances of winning.
"Because it's a UDF stronghold, anyone from their coalition who stands here will win. And because it's Rahul Gandhi, you don't have to think twice. All we have to do is check the winning margin on May 23," Shameer said.
But he still fears the prospect of Gandhi abandoning Wayanad for Amethi once he wins from both seats. "It's a real possibility. We may have to face another election. But we are hoping that as someone who at least fought from here, he will do some work for us."
On Thursday, Gandhi, accompanied by his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and senior leaders of the Opposition UDF, will file his nomination papers before the district collector in Kalpetta after leading a roadshow through the constituency.
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