Consider this bitter truth about politics. Until November 15, 2000, when the state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar, the Hindi-speaking eastern state of Bihar was seen as the second biggest state of India electorally which sent 54 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Today it sends 40 MPs. However, since Independence, Bihar has remained just a pocket borough of politicians irrespective of party lines, who treat the people of the state as a ‘vote-bank’. The life of the common man in the state has not improved and remained by and large the same.
It’s a pity that Bihar, which is so pivotal to every political party ruling in Delhi for over seven decades, still languishes at the bottom of almost every development index. Or else, what explains the shocking death of more than 140 children in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district over the past few days due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), a disease where the fatalities increase due to lack of awareness and lack of basic medical infrastructure.
The shocking thing is that Bihar's administration remains apathetic to the problem and this has outraged the entire country. What’s more embarrassing is that this healthcare nightmare comes at a time when India is charting out plans to build its own space station, and also land on the Moon.
The state government’s apathy is evident in the conduct of Bihar heath minister Mangal Pandey. On June 16, while sitting next to Union health minister Harsh Vardhan and attending a press conference, Pandey is heard asking his aide, “how many wickets have fallen?” More than the encephalitis outbreak, Pandey seemed interested in knowing about the India-Pakistan cricket match that was taking place in England.
Even social media was critical of the Bihar administration’s handling of the health crisis.
So, what needs to be done? Even though health is a state subject, the Narendra Modi-led central government cannot take the health crisis in Bihar lightly. It will have to tighten the screws on the Nitish Kumar government, where the BJP is also part of the ruling coalition.
At a time when India is forging ahead in global affairs and Modi is set to leave for Japan next week for participating in the G20 summit in Osaka, the Bihar health crisis and the apathetic response to it will inevitably convey a poor image of India before the international community.
The state administration’s response to the health crisis was on expected lines. First, the authorities said the deaths were due to the intense heat wave; further, they tried to downplay it saying it was due to Hypoglycemia (drop in blood sugar levels) and lack of awareness. Finally, when the crisis caught national attention they acknowledged that it was because of malnutrition and inadequacy of primary health centres (PHCs).
Malnutrition and lack of basic health infrastructure are the two main reasons for the current crisis and this could spread to other parts of India as well.
Statistics show that for many years Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, a prominent litchi-growing belt, has been prone to encephalitis, particularly among malnourished children who eat litchis without anything more substantial as a proper diet. Between 2010 and 2014 the encephalitis epidemic has claimed nearly 1,000 lives. During this period the Nitish Kumar government has done precious little. This despite scientific research highlighting the problem Muzaffarpur is facing.
Research has showed that due to certain climate and nutrition-related factors unique to Muzaffarpur, malnourished children are particularly vulnerable to encephalitis that can prove to be fatal if not detected and treated within hours of first symptoms of the disease.
To prevent recurrences of such crises, the State needs to do the following: Have a special nutrition programme for AES-prone areas; improve infrastructure at PHCs and equip them with glycometers to monitor blood sugar levels; sensitize PHC staff on how to treat AES symptoms; and, ensure that there are adequate number of well-equipped virology labs.
This is the bare minimum a space power such as India needs to do.Rajeev Sharma is a senior journalist and political analyst. Twitter: @Kishkindha, Views are personal.