By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta
Rural healthcare in Assam 'is in the doldrums'
About 700 doctors have been appointed by the government in the Indian state of Assam on condition they will serve in rural areas for at least a year.
The appointment letters were handed over on Wednesday.
Many more medical graduates will be appointed by the Assam government on similar conditions, state Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said.
He said that graduates on the scheme would be eligible for higher studies only after a year of rural service.
Mr Sarma said that the initiative would dramatically improve the availability of medical care in rural Assam, where hundreds die of malaria, encephalitis and other killer diseases every year.
He said that under the conditions of appointment, each doctor would have to pay a fine of 700,000 rupees ($14,489) if they opt out of rural service.
'Accept the conditions'
"On appointment, they have to serve the first year in rural areas. That is the least they can do for the people and the government, which spends so much to train a doctor," Mr Sarma said.
The state of Maharashtra recently tried to implement a similar scheme but it did not work.
"But now it will, because all our appointments are conditional. Accept the conditions or else you don't get a job with us," the health minister said.
Mr Sarma said that the Assam government was also appointing retired doctors with similar conditions of service in rural areas.
"Anybody with a medical degree can just walk in for an interview and get a job. We still have 234 vacancies across the state and all these recruits will be posted to rural health centres," he said.
The new recruitment drive has become necessary to improve rural healthcare which is suffering a chronic shortage of doctors in villages.
"We have to do something drastic to improve the healthcare system, especially in rural areas," Mr Sarma said.
Doctors apart, there is a severe shortage of nurses and paramedics.
"We require about 1,200 nurses and in the next two months we are going to fill these vacancies," he said.
"The shortage of nurses in Assam has severely affected immunisation programmes in the past few years."
The minister said that the authorities would "come down heavily" on specialist government doctors who ignore their normal duties and devote more time to private nursing homes.