By Nimesh Bansal
As India completes 70 years of independence, more than 70 parents in Uttar Pradesh stand beside their child’s grave. Since last week, Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) have claimed the lives of 72 children at the Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College, the biggest hospital in Gorakhpur.
Busy pointing fingers
The ugliness of the tragedy has been exacerbated by the incessant blame game. Media reports hint at the negligence in the supply of liquid oxygen to the hospital. According to reports, Pushpa Sales, the firm contracted to supply liquid oxygen to the BRD Medical College, stopped the supplies over non-payment of dues amounting to Rs 69 lakh. The government, however, claims the shortage of cylinders lasted only for two hours, and even then, oxygen was arranged from alternate sources. In response, the opposition launched an attack asking them that if oxygen supply was not disrupted, why were people in charge of making payments to the vendor suspended and the vendor office raided?
Uttar Pradesh Congress has even called for Yogi Adityanath’s resignation, with committee chief Raj Babbar saying, “70 children were murdered in the last four days. The state government is responsible for their murder. This government is a killer and I want to ask how many more children will be killed.” BJP president Amit Shah responded by deeming the incident an accident and said a probe had been ordered to find the guilty. He then proceeded to add some political fuel to the fire by saying, “It is the Congress’s job to ask for resignations. In such a big country tragedies have happened before and have happened during Congress rule as well. This is not a first such incident.“
Once a hero…now the villain?
The ‘not a first such incident’ rhetoric is exactly what has been the cause of the public’s ire. Gorakhpur has been under the grips of JE and AES since 1978. Official figures say 25,000 children have died due to encephalitis over the past four decades; independent reports put the figure as high as 50,000. No one knows this better than current Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, for whom Gorakhpur is a home constituency.
In 2016, Adityanath lashed out against the Samajwadi Party government saying, “For 36 years, the deaths of children have been reported in the Gorakhpur region. Around one lakh children have died, and the majority of those who survived are now disabled. The state government has been insensitive to recurrent deaths even though central government has released many funds.” He had started campaigning to bring attention towards the situation ever since he became an MP in 1998. He handed memorandums to the ministers, organised dharnas, raised the issue in Lok Sabha, all to no avail. Adityanath’s ascent to the post of chief minister gave rise to mixed emotions in the state. As the rhetoric revolved around Hindu consolidation, Muslim marginalisation, shutting down of illegal slaughterhouses, and anti-Romeo squads, Gorakhpur was hopeful that the cyclical deaths from encephalitis would finally be stopped.
A never ending battle
In May, the CM launched a campaign to eradicate JE and AES. A target was set: to vaccinate 88 lakh children in 38 UP districts, including Gorakhpur. Awareness drives for the disease were also launched; Swachh Bharat Abhiyan took newfound importance. With the recent turn of events, however, the effectiveness of these measures has clearly been nil. The government’s recent display of callousness has not helped the cause. Health Minister Siddhartha Nath Singh commented, “Deaths happened even in the past”, reducing the tragedy to mere statistics. Adityanath himself issued a directive to organise a ‘grand Krishna Janmashtami celebration’ amidst the state of mourning.
Yogi Adityanath has been cognizant of this issue for more than 20 years, yet his actions offer little hope. The politicisation of the issue has added an unnecessary layer to this sensitive incident. It is unclear whether four decades of suffering in Gorakhpur will become five. But with the death of 72 children on his watch, it is clear that Yogi Adityanath has no place to hide.
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