After 4,000 deaths and 19,000 victims over seven years,encephalitis has made it to the election manifestoes of most parties in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. On ground zero in eastern Uttar Pradesh,however,it is still to figure in the candidates campaign.
Voters are angry and frustrated but say they are not surprised. Some are determined not to vote at all on February 8 and 11,when the seats in these areas go to polls.
Not more than 5km from Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur,Manbela village has lost over 10 children to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome,including Mohammad Hasans only son. The 30-year-old tailor is among those who will note vote. If only better medical facilities had been available in the medical college,my eight-year-old Shahzade would still have been playing in my courtyard, he says. But the government or the parties do not care about the poor,and encephalitis is the disease of the poor.
Hari Lal,40,and his wife Kiran Devi lost their 11-year-old daughter in 2010. She had encephalitis. By the time we took her to hospital,she was breathing with difficulty. They put her on oxygen but it was too late, remembers Kiran. I lost a son to pneumonia when he was six months old,while my first son died within a couple of days of birth.
Hari Lal says he doesnt blame anyone. Life or death is in Gods hands. What can one do? Whatever be the deciding factor in the polls in the encephalitis-hit village,he says,it wont be encephalitis for sure.
The belts 16 districts,particularly Gorakhpur,Kushinagar,Maharajganj,Siddharthanagar,Deoria,Basti and Sant Kabir Nagar,have been affected by the disease for the past three decades. Many of those who survive are left mentally challenged or disabled for life. The BRD Medical College is the only government medical facility in the area catering to such patients.
The disease,which was initially believed to be only mosquito-carried but later confirmed as water-borne,caught national attention after a doctor,R N Singh,started raising the issue in 2005,even sending letters written in blood to Rahul Gandhi. Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath followed it up in Parliament,finally bringing Rahul Gandhi to the area. Late last year,in the run-up to the elections,Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad visited the affected districts and formed a group of ministers to draft a national programme for the disease.
Realising public anger over government ineffectivenes,parties this time have made fighting the disease a poll promise. While the Samajwadi Party has vowed special facilities for Gorakhpur and Jhansi medical colleges,the BJP has promised a special research institute and hospital in its manifesto. The Congress,while silent on the issue in its manifesto,has promised a special drinking water package for the area in its vision document.
In spite of the issue featuring in their manifestoes for the first time,the local candidates of parties are just not talking about the issue, says Dr Singh. Blaming the people for not putting adequate pressure on candidates,Dr Singh has prepared a seven-point questionnaire for parties that is being distributed to villages for the public to raise.
The candidates are more content talking about the usual poll issue of infrastructure,like roads and electricity. In Dumrikhurd village of Chauri Chaura,Zulekha Banos 10-year-old son Shamsher is unable to hear or talk and do basic functions following a bout of encephalitis. Both Rahul and SP state president Akhilesh Yadav have been to Chauri Chaura the past month,holding poll meetings. Zulekha says she never heard of them.
Says Bindu Awadhesh Singh,a social activist of Chauri Chaura: Like previous times,voting will be on caste equations. Local issues will not decide who wins or loses the seat.
In the Pipraich constituency,where encephalitis has killed three in the past month,local issues of electricity supply and sanitation dominate the poll debates. The candidates are not talking of encephalitis,and the people are not bothering to raise the issue either, said Sumeshwar Prasad,one of the ward members of Pipraich.
Harihar Prasad,a driver by profession who lost a daughter in September 2011 to the disease,regrets the absence of a show of anger. Had people been aggressive,they would have hit the streets by now,demanding better health facilities.
Parties instead have fallen back on symbolism,fumes Kallu Miyan,who sees son Hasan mourn his eight-year-old everyday. They use dirty tricks like wearing a Muslim topi and throwing Roza Iftaar parties to appease Muslims. But after they win,they dont bother even peeping into the village.