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 has been 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
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
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 happen to be 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
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 theatres 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
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
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 fašade of all those democratic
mechanisms, which form the base of our claims of being the largest democracy of
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
[Mr. Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food Programme, AHRC.
He can be contacted at