A passionate plea by children for a cleaner environment during a street play on Sunday led Union minister Harsh Vardhan to reminisce about his days as health minister of Delhi 23 years ago when he oversaw the successful implementation of the ‘Pulse Polio’ pilot project. The Pulse Polio programme involved the mass immunisation of 1 million children up to the age of three in Delhi in 1994. “When I saw these children performing memories came flooding to my mind. These kids have a lot of passion and we need to harness them,” said the minister of environment and forests, at an event in New Delhi on the eve of World Environment Day.
About a dozen children performed the play on protecting the environment in presence of the minister, which he said made him revisit his days as health minister of Delhi in 1994.
He recalled 1994 was also the year of the plague in India and how concerns were raised even by global health organisations over the success of the Pulse Polio programme in India. “We were very concerned. We didn’t think mothers would bring their young children to polio centres to be immunised. Even the World Health Organisation suggested that we postpone the programme from the scheduled date of October 2,” said the minister.
India, then home to around 60 per cent of global cases of polio, was the focus of the polio eradication programme. Vardhan recalled how failing was not an option. He remembered how he called all primary school directors who came with their 12 deputy directors to his office to discuss the programme.
“We discussed what we could do. We came up with a plan whereby we decided that all school-going children in Delhi will be given homework before September 30, 1994 where they were told to write down the names of 10 children under three years of age who reside in their vicinity,” he said.
All the principals were told about the homework and the children were asked to get the task done by September 30. The teachers were told that once these homeworks were submitted, they were to ask the children to ensure that the kids on their list reached the immunisation centres the next day. “When on October 3, after the programme was done, we knew that we had to attribute much of its success to these children who pushed the mothers to take their kids for the two polio drops. It was a small idea, but it worked wonders,” Harsh Vardhan said.
As a result of this idea, the minister said around one million children in Delhi were immunised and the project was replicated in other countries as well. He said, in 1995, this programme was launched nationwide leading to 88 million children being immunised. On March 28, 2014, India was declared polio-free by the WHO as there had been no reported cases for three years. “I still remember the face of this one boy from Mongolpuri, who had a list of 346 children on his homework sheet. He had ensured that each of them had been immunised. This is what children can do for the country,” said Harsh Vardhan.