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World

Hospitals In Kashmir Short Of Supplies

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's been nearly four weeks since India cut phone lines and Internet in its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. It did this to prevent protests right before it revoked the state's autonomy. But doctors and human rights groups say these measures may now be endangering lives, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from New Delhi.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At Delhi's airport, passengers arrive from Kashmir and immediately turn on their cellphones. It's the first connectivity they've had in nearly a month. A college student named Mehboob says the most harrowing part of living under lockdown was when his grandfather suffered chest pains. Mehboob had to rush him through army checkpoints to the hospital where they found long lines and little help.

MEHBOOB: I talked to a few doctors and - the few who work in the hospitals, I talk to them. They told that there have been - there has been a shortage of medicine.

FRAYER: His 80-year-old grandfather managed to get treatment and is now resting at home in Kashmir, though Mehboob has no way of checking on him. The student insisted on giving only his first name to protect his family. This week, Kashmiri doctors held a one-day strike. They, too, say hospitals are running short on supplies and are unable to process insurance claims. Fearful of arrest - and thousands of Kashmiris have been in recent weeks - the doctors held signs that read, this is not a protest. This is a request.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OMAR SALIM: (Speaking Urdu).

FRAYER: This urologist, Omar Salim, told local TV that low-income patients are eligible for free treatment, but that without the Internet, he hasn't been able to verify their medical records. Patients have been forced to buy their own drugs, he said. And they can't afford to do that for much longer. The Indian government denies this. Spokesman Raveesh Kumar told reporters in Delhi...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAVEESH KUMAR: It is a false report. We have seen the stocks of various lifesaving drugs and not even in one instance any hospital has reported shortage of drugs or disposable items. Not a single life has been lost.

FRAYER: But moments after Dr. Salim spoke to reporters, police hauled him away. The cameras were still rolling. Two days later, the doctor's brother tweeted that he has been released. NPR is in touch with another emergency room doctor in Srinagar whose home landline is one of few that have been restored by the government. But she did not want to describe the conditions in her hospital over the phone out of fear her phone line may be tapped. The United Nations has called Kashmir's blackout collective punishment. Human Rights Watch says it infringes basic freedoms. That group's South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly, is just back from Srinagar where she said people are deeply frustrated.

MEENAKSHI GANGULY: They have not been able to reach their loved ones. But additionally, the Internet is also something that people depend on now to check in on medical records or give access to insurance. So it is becoming a big challenge.

FRAYER: A challenge that's prompted Kashmiris to try to get around the restrictions. Volunteers are offering to ferry medical supplies into the region on commercial flights.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is the last and final call - I repeat, this is the last and final call to all passengers traveling from Delhi to Srinagar.

FRAYER: Mohammed Younis is an unemployed travel agent who came to Delhi with a shopping list of prescription drugs and is now flying home to Srinagar. He's done two round trips so far.

MOHAMMED YOUNIS: I have 14 patients' medicine with me. So I am doing this work again and again.

FRAYER: So you're opening a bag and you've got pills and creams, ostomy powders.

YOUNIS: Yes. This is capecitabine.

FRAYER: This is a cancer drug.

YOUNIS: Cancer drug.

FRAYER: It turns out Younis is a cancer survivor himself. Last year, a bunch of Kashmiris crowdfunded to raise money for his treatment. Now his cancer is in remission. And he's trying to pay it forward by carrying three giant duffel bags filled with medicine back to those who need it in Kashmir. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.