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India: Diarrhea and cholera are social disasters

India: Diarrhea and cholera are social disasters in Orissa

Death visited Orissa once again. Whenever the rainy season comes, death from the waterborne diseases of diarrhea and cholera follow. As the rains are a natural phenomenon, can the deaths also be natural and unavoidable?

It is reported that the official death toll hit 39 in Rayagada district, 27 in Nuapada district, 10 in Nabarangpur, 5 in Koraput, 4 in Kalahandi and 8 in Malkangiri. About 355 persons were found infected in Rayagada alone. Cholera has reportedly claimed 140 deaths in Rayagada and Kalahandi. All deaths happened in the last two months. The number of deaths, whether or not exact, reflects the seriousness of the situation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s report in 2009, 38% of deaths of children under five die of diarrhoea in South Asia. India accounts for the highest numbers of children dying of diarrhoea – 386,600 annually.

Diarrhea, cholera and malnutrition are all acute diseases of the poor in India. The government as well as experts cannot differentiate these three sicknesses since they often appear all at one time or consecutively. When the rainy season starts, water is easily contaminated. If there is not accessibility to safe drinking water at home or in the village, people are easily and quickly infected. The poor and malnourished children are the most susceptible. They are disadvantaged due to a lack of basic facilities such as safe drinking water, electricity, and food.

The government usually denies starvation deaths or malnutrition (please read the statement to understand how the state government denies starvation death this year), while at the same time recognising heavy casualties of diarrhea or cholera as ‘emergencies.’ Malnutrition and starvation death remains the government’s responsibility, while diarrhea and cholera are seen as sicknesses caused by natural disasters. However, this thinking is flawed as well as the treatment protocols.

The Collector of Rayagada district visited the village and ordered drinking water to be supplied by tankers, which then stopped coming after just four days. As a result, the villagers were forced to drink water from a pond. The state government is currently sending doctors, medicines, and food and setting up emergency camps in the affected villages. But, this is nothing new.

In 2007, the Chief Minister of Orissa visited the Rayagada district and assured them that safe drinking water would be provided. The government invested a great deal of money to install tube wells to supply drinking water. The villagers found them to be flawed. According to the local human rights defender, the actual depth of the tube did not meet the standard on paper. Reportedly, the state government spent INR 133. 85 crores (USD 28.9 millions). They dug 65,680 tube wells between the years 2001 to 2006 to no avail.

Many of the posts for doctors in health institutions in the districts are not filled. For instance, whereas 65 doctors were approved for the Nuapada district, 28 posts (43%) still remain vacant. Doctors are reluctant to work in this area, simply because it is less developed. It is a disadvantaged tribal area. It is reported that some doctors have said, “We are waiting for the patients but they are reluctant to come.” This reluctance may stem from the following considerations: negative attitudes and discrimination from the medical staff against the poor tribes, hard-to-get to centres, basic distrust of this type of medical treatment. Every year the government makes a token gesture to help the affected villagers, but this has not led to any substantial, permanent improvement.

The Orissa government has chosen to put its efforts into bringing in multinational foreign companies through Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the name of development. The government has been allowing the companies to occupy the land and forests resulting in forced displacement and environmental disruption. Basic infrastructure, accessible to all, has not been built which would ensure fundamental rights to food, health and safe drinking water for all of the population. Without guaranteeing right to life, how can such development be meaningful and valuable in society?

The Ministry of Environment recently handed down a decision against the Vedanta mining project. The Ministry opposed land distribution for the project. This coupled with the prolonged struggle by villagers against the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) project of steel production, mining, and port facilities, prove that the state government’s policy for development is wrong.

When a situation is predictable and preventable, it cannot be called an ‘emergency’. There is no ‘emergency’ that can be universally predicted. When death is curable and preventable, the government cannot call it ‘death caused by natural disaster’. There is no death caused by natural disaster that occurs every year unless government negligence creates the ‘emergency’ and ‘death by natural disaster’ in the first place.

The AHRC urges the Orissa government to stop creating such ‘emergency’ in the future. Instead, we urge the Orissa government to initiate immediate and substantial action. Let them make the lives of the affected villages secure by planning long-term policies that guarantee safe drinking water and food security. They should seek in particular collaboration with civil groups who are concerned about this aged social epidemic.

The AHRC also requests that the UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, visit Orissa. Despite its seriousness, India has not been visited by Independent Expert. The situation regarding the need for safe drinking water needs to be examined and the government’s obligation as a state party needs to be monitored by national civil groups as well as international society.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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