An Ode To 'lesser' people's Death

[First Published by the Asian Human Rights Commission]
My other English articles on Encephalitis can be accessed here.
Hindi ones can be found here.]

Come June, and Indian media has a welcome break from the dearth of positive news. They do not need to repeat telecast the same scams, neither they are forced to fill their 'news programs' with this soap opera or that comedy show running on countless entertainment channels. They get their OB vans chasing monsoons right from Kerala all the way down to foothills of Himalaya with their young and chirpy reporters getting drenched in the pours.

In a country where most of the agriculture is rain-fed, the obsession with the onset of Monsoon is completely understandable. Here, monsoon cannot be anything other than most welcome. Unfortunately, that is not the case everywhere. In some parts of the country, any news of its onset makes people tremble with fear. That is despite the fact that even their agriculture is dependent upon monsoons. Monsoon, for them, is harbinger of death and destruction. In these parts of the country, it does never come alone. It brings in Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) and the Japanese Encephalitis and takes their children away.

It had killed more than a thousand children last year, 884 of them by 15 November, as admitted by the minister of state for health and family welfare Mr. Sudeep Bandhopadhyay in the Rajya Sabha. 501 of them are from Uttar Pradesh alone. The government, on its part, made all the noises it had made the year before, and the year before that. It promised to develop an 'indigenous' vaccine that would reach areas where the disease is endemic, by February this year. Just that the vaccines did not reach all the needy children and death count was pegged at 492 by 30 June. That is well before the monsoon reaching eastern Uttar Pradesh, the area worst affected by the disease.

That a curable disease could kill more than thousand children every year should in it be enough to shame the governments, both at the provincial and central level? The fact that it is one that has a vaccine makes government's inaction nothing less than criminal. Seen in this light, the children are not dying, they are getting killed. And the government of India is complicit in the crime on account of its failure in providing the affected areas with vaccination and quality medical service to save the lives it is duty bound to protect.

Worse even, the story is going on unabashedly for 34 years now and even the most conservative estimates put the number of total deaths at nothing less than 34000. And these estimates are really conservative as they do not factor in the massive underreporting of cases for many of the victims do not even get to reach the hospitals. Neither do they take inaccessibility of many villages during rainy season into account. This is why that social activists and local media put the estimates on a staggering high 50000, and then add a note of caution. For them, even this figure is a conservative estimate though not the most conservative one.

All this happens when the government has all that takes to control this annual dance of death. It has 54 Sentinel and 12 Apex Referral Laboratories dedicated for maintaining surveillance and prevent deaths scattered across the country. That the set up has failed terribly is evidenced by the sheer volume of deaths this year, 492 to repeat, that too by 30 June, or before the onset of proper rains. Getting to why of this failure, opens up a Pandora box of apathy, inaction and ignorance of those in power. All their initiates do not fail after all. There had been instances of outbreaks of diseases where the powers of the Indian state had much to not only control such outbreaks but also almost eradicate it.

The recurrent outbreaks of Dengue in Delhi in the last decade are proof to this. The government went on an overdrive to control the menace and brought down instances of Dengue to a considerable extent in a short span. It has kept itself prepared ever since. There are regular cleanliness drives with a team of dedicated officers to deal with the disease. There are mobile squads to check sources where mosquitoes could breed. These mobile squads go even inside private houses to check the electric coolers, flower pots and all that could contain stagnant water and are authorized to fine the household if they could find mosquitoes.

Why do, then, the authorities not show the same enthusiasm for controlling the disease in places like Gorakhpur, Deoria or Kushinagar? Are these places any less part of the Union of India than Delhi? Or the people living in such poor and impoverished places any 'less citizen' than those who live in flashy metropolitan cities? What then explain the authorities' overzealous reaction to the woes of one of them and an almost criminal negligence of the other? The point begets another question about the media's silence over the issue.

Well, nothing to deny that media does report this. In fact, all the data I have here is found through media reports. But then, there is a definite pattern in the way media reports this issue. They would run a stray editorial in the print. All those channels would run a few stories. And then they will bury it all to run it roughly the same time next year. All that would change would be the names of the victims with even the theaters of this tragedy remaining the same.

Compare this with the same media reporting cases that are close to its heart. Remember all those Justice for Jessica campaigns that the same media ran. Or the outrage it carried in its reports while Delhi was slowly becoming the rape capital of India. Or the anger that resonated through our television sets when a top cop found guilty of sexually molesting a young player to the extent of driving her to commit suicide was let off with almost no punishment. The media do not get silent over these cases, it should not, either.

Everyone deserves justice in a country where the rule of law prevails. All just causes should be taken up with the same intensity and media is well within its rights to shape a national conscience against such injustice, such ghastly violations of our fundamental rights.

Why does, though, the same media get so eerily silent over these deaths, killings to be precise? Why does it not shame the authorities into action? Why does it not organize panel discussions with experts debating the issue and the middle classes watching it with all that horror on their faces that the enormity of the issue generates? Are these people any less than the one the media is concerned about? Perhaps yes, for these people are not the ones who become 'us' to the media. They are not their people. They are neither from their class nor their caste. Their deaths should still concern the media as killings in faraway places like Syria bother it, does not it? Why does it remain silent on this one then?

The answer lies in the fundamental flaws that define our deficient democracy. It lays in those structures of inequality that have produced a political culture where some people are more equal than the others. It lies in that phantom limb of caste that has gotten engrained into the façade of all those democratic mechanisms, which form the base of our claims of being the largest democracy of the world.

It lies in the idea of hierarchy that dehumanizes certain sections of our society to the extent that they become easily expendable. They remain invisible for all practical purposes. Their lives come real cheap. The only thing that matters about them is their labour that this future super power needs. The problem is that even this labour comes in abundant supply. Death of a few thousand every year does not matter much; there is always plenty of replacement. That is why a state like Uttar Pradesh can afford to spends 685 crores on a park and 18 crores on Japanese Encephalitis.

For the authorities they are not human beings, they are population. Have they not been taught, then, all their lives that population is a problem, in fact the biggest problem of India? And if they are the population, then they are the biggest problem and dispensable therefore. That explains the silence and the absence of all that anger that should be generated by such criminal loss of human lives. The explanations, though, do not absolve anyone. The media, the civil society and the government, all remain complicit in these murders most foul.


  1. Thanks for raising this issue Samar. System's acute apathy has made this disease a killer demon in eastern UP. Every other house of thousands of villages had lost their loved ones, specially young children. Many leaders had paid visits and made promises but nothing has been done yet.


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