The report on the deaths of eleven people with special needs, including eight children, staying at a government-run home near Jamdoli in Rajasthan due to suspected bacterial infection after allegedly drinking contaminated water surfaced on Friday. However, the backstory tells us that there is more to it than meets the eye.
Inside the government-run home, about 500 children and elders with special needs – suffering from frequent epileptic fits, cerebral palsy and other debilitating mental conditions – make frequent trips to the hall where the tank, located in the centre, is brimming with water.
The temperature is a searing 41 degree Celsius. Dry, hot wind – locally called loo – is sweeping through Jamdoli, a few kilometres from capital Jaipur. The inclement loo is sucking moisture from the wind, drying out throats, leaving cracks in lips that begin to bleed. Water is the only saviour from the scorching heat.
Some wash their hands in the tank after relieving themselves after using the toilets. Others dip their glasses into the same tank to quench their thirst with the water that is now a toxic mix of human waste and bacteria.
On 18 April, when 18-year-old Varsha suddenly collapsed and died, nobody bothered to find out the cause of the death. A few hours later, when 18-year-old Shanti started throwing up and died, again nobody rang the alarm bells.
As the management of the government-run home turned a blind eye, 12 children died in less than a fortnight, all of them because of dehydration, diarrhoea and infection. Killed probably by the contaminated water and food that was cooked with it, and certainly by official apathy.
On 21 April, when Megha, 13, became the fifth victim, the local administration wrote a letter to the chief medical health officer (CMHO) of Jaipur, drawing attention to the spate of deaths.
A team sent by the CMHO visited the home, went back with water samples and then forgot to follow up the matter. So, another five children died in the next five days.
Finally, on Thursday, when the local media picked up the issue, the government took cognisance of the incident. But, only to deny that there was anything unnatural about the 12 deaths in a children’s home in the past two weeks.
“These children are not mentally developed. Because of their condition, their immunity gets compromised and they become susceptible to seasonal diseases,” opined state’s social welfare minister Arun Chaturvedi, brushing aside the incident as routine.
Doctors who treated the children – so far 25 have been admitted, 12 died – say the cause is clear: severe illness due to food and water contamination. “When children are made to drink water used for washing hands after using the toilet, bacteria found in human feces infect the stomach. Repeated exposure could be lethal,” one of the doctors said.
The children were not treated on time either. Most of them were brought to the hospital when their illness had reached an advanced stage. They had lost water, minerals from their body and gone into a shock. “Even when they were sick, throwing up, dying of dehydration, the staff did not bother to give them clean drinking water,” doctors at the JK Lone Hospital in Jaipur, where the children are being treated, told the government in their report.
Now that the media and society has raised a storm, tragedy tourism has begun. On Friday, Chaturvedi, minister in charge, finally paid visit to the home which is just an hour’s drive from his office in Jaipur. Several BJP and Congress leaders too landed in Jamdoli, much to the amusement of the inmates, who, perhaps, were being visited for the first time by someone in years. Stirred into action by the bad press, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s office said now it will directly monitor the health of the inmates at Jamdoli.
Complaints of the government’s apathy have also reached the High Court. It will hear a petition seeking strict action against the government on Monday.
Meanwhile, the children continue to drink from the same tank.