Gorakhpur bypoll: Encephalitis deaths, poor healthcare dominate voters' mind even as polling remains low at 43%
In Gorakhpur parliamentary constituency, where mosquito-borne diseases have been killing thousands of children for decades now, healthcare facility was the key issue in the run-up to Sunday's bypolls
Editor's note: Voters in Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh exercised their franchise in the bypolls on Sunday in what has emerged as unexpectedly low turnout. This is part of a series of ground reports covering the aspirations of the people and prospects of political parties in the two Assembly constituencies. The reports will seek to find if these by-elections are indeed litmus tests ahead of the 2019 General Elections. Click here to read more stories from the series.
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh: In Gorakhpur parliamentary constituency, where mosquito-borne diseases have been killing thousands of children for decades now, healthcare facility was the key issue in the run-up to Sunday's bypolls.
The bypoll was necessitated after Adityanath resigned as a Member of Parliament last year following his appointment as the state's chief minister, and his election to the UP Vidhan Parishad (legislative council) thereafter.
The parliamentary constituency comprises mostly villages, bereft of development and lacking healthcare facilities, among other infrastructure. BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur was in the eye of the storm last year after dozens of rural children died there of encephalitis within a space of a few days.
The institute is the only big hospital in the region and caters to a vast population. There is a chronic shortage of doctors in Uttar Pradesh, because of which villagers rush to quacks, whose wrong diagnosis and inexperience often prove fatal.
According to a report by the Directorate of National Vector Borne Diseases Control Programme, as many as 26,686 cases of vector-borne encephalitis were reported in Uttar Pradesh between 2010 and 2017. Most of these cases were reported in Gorakhpur. The first known case was reported in 1978 but it drew attention only in 2005, when it killed 1,344 children.
Though four decades have passed since encephalitis was first reported in the state, governments have employed little to no pre-emptive measures to contain the deadly disease. Even as the administration is accused of sustained apathy, the voters who had queued up for the bypoll on Sunday were unanimous in saying that healthcare facilities remain their prime area of concern.
"Meri beti ko agar theek se doctor dekhte to sayad aaj wo jinda hoti. Aap ek baar aspataal dekho jaa kar. Wahaan kooda ki tarah bachcha log bharti hai aur doctor babu log bahut kam hai (My daughter might have lived had the doctors attended to her. You visit the hospital once. There, children are dumped like garbage and doctors are far too few)," rued Manju Devi Sharma, 40.
Manju lost her seven-year-old daughter, Pinky, to encephalitis last year. Bereaved, she has had to go for counselling to get over the grief, but to no avail. She described how they had rushed Pinky to the local primary healthcare centre (PHC) when she began running a temperature. She said that the PHC did not have any doctor so they took Pinky to a private clinic, where she was administered an injection and referred to the district hospital for proper diagnosis.
She informs that they took Pinky to the district hospital, where a doctor at the out-patient department gave her some medicines. However, her temperature shot up further and she had to be admitted to the emergency ward for two days.
Manju said that her daughter was not responding to the treatment and the doctors referred her to BRD Medical College, where she was diagnosed with encephalitis and later succumbed to it.
Manju said there is a severe shortage of doctors in government hospitals, be it PHCs, community healthcare centres (CHCs), district hospitals or even the BRD Medical College. She said she has cast her vote hoping for better healthcare facilities in the district so that nobody dies for want of medical attention.
Showing off his inked finger, Ram Ujagi, 53, of Manbela village, echoed similar thoughts.
He stated how he lost his two sons to poor healthcare. He said that one died because there was no doctor at their local CHC while the other breathed his last at BRD Medical College. Ujagi said government healthcare facilities have been deteriorating day by day while private clinics in Gorakhpur are mushrooming. All the residents of Manbela who had queued up to cast their votes agreed with this statement.
Revti Devi, a resident of Parga Basantpur, lost her seven-month-old daughter to encephalitis last year. She is now six weeks pregnant and has planned to move to her village in Bihar for her delivery. She said that the facilities there are much better than in Gorakhpur. For one, she said doctors are available round-the-clock and do not charge much.
Congress candidate for Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat, Sureeth Kamath, told Firstpost over the phone that health and infrastructure are the main issues they are focusing on for the poll. She said that roads are full of potholes, there is a shortage of doctors and the area has seen no development. She asked what Yogi Adityanath — he won every parliamentary election from Gorakhpur since 1998 — has done here.
BJP candidate Upendra Dutt Shukla could not be contacted despite repeated attempts.
Manoj Kumar, the chairperson of Manav Sewa Sansthan, a non-profit organisation, said that this time, the election is based totally on the issue of health infrastructure. Since BRD Medical College gained infamy at national level owing to the children's deaths last year, he said that everyone in Gorakhpur city now talks about the need for improvement in government healthcare services.
Why situation persists
According to Dr RN Singh, a former resident doctor at BRD Medical College, the central government had launched a massive vaccination drive in 2007 but it was not enough to control this disease. He remarked that political reasons also played an important role in the handling of the disease.
"I remember that the Congress government (at Centre) had sent a helicopter in 2008 for spraying but that was stopped at Lucknow by the then chief minister Mayawati for political reasons. Later, the same was repeated by the Mulayam Singh Yadav government," he said, adding that Adityanath was the only politician to heed this disease.
He said that Adityanath visited his clinic multiple times to discuss how to contain the disease, wrote letters to the government and used his MP Local Area Development fund in this regard.
Dr Singh is known for adopting Holiya village in the district and drastically minimising the impact of encephalitis there.
Gorakhpur witnessed a voter turnout of 43 percent and the results will be declared on 14 March.
The author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
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