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In Photos: Inside The Hospital-on-Wheels Lifeline Express

Lifeline Express, a seven-coach train converted into a rolling hospital, has travelled across India for 27 years.

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Bhawri Devi, an illiterate Indian labourer, thought she was dying when she started to lose her hearing last month.

She went to a government hospital near her remote village in the western state of Rajasthan to be treated, but it did not have a specialist doctor.

"I didn't even have 5,000 rupees," said Devi, 41, who returned in despair to her home in Jalore.

Days later came news of visiting specialists who would treat her for free.

They arrived in early April as volunteers on the Lifeline Express, a seven-coach train converted into a rolling hospital that has crisscrossed India for 27 years to treat people like Devi living in areas with scarce healthcare.

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Lifeline Express has treated about 1.2 million people since its launch in 1991 by the non-profit Impact India Foundation, said chief operating officer and doctor Rajnish Gourh.

In a country that spends just one percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare, among the world's lowest, the hospital on wheels fills a critical gap.

Like Devi, India's poor are caught between relying on a crumbling public health system trusted by few, or selling meagre assets to fund private treatment.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government launched a scheme in February that aims to widen health insurance coverage to 500 million people, but critics say the plan is unlikely to work unless public health systems improve dramatically.

Until then, options such as the Lifeline Express offer crucial support.

Decorated with mahogany flower garlands, the sky-blue train parked at the sleepy station in Jalore could be mistaken for a new passenger train. Its medical facilities would rival many Indian public hospitals.

It employs 20 permanent paramedic staff, with most doctors volunteering from nearby medical colleges or hospitals.

Typically, it spends a month in a district, performing surgery ranging from cataracts and cancer to cleft palates and orthopaedics.

The aim is not to compete with India's public health system, but support it. "We cannot have a hundred Lifeline Expresses in the country," said Gourh.

Railways Minister Piyush Goyal agreed to provide the second train at a meeting with Lifeline Express officials in February, Gourh said. The rail ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The train gives volunteer doctors and medical students an opportunity to hone their skills while doing satisfying community work.

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(This article has been published in an arrangement with Reuters. The article has been edited for length.)

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Topics:  Narendra Modi   Railways   Piyush Goyal 

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