The Centre has asked the Odisha government to look into the deaths of more than 300 Adivasi children, attributed to Japanese Encephalitis, in Malkangiri district over the past two months.
Japanese Encephalitis is a lethal mosquito-borne disease that causes swelling of the tissues around the brain.
The Malkangiri Solidarity Group Delhi, along with doctors, social workers and journalists working on the ground, are pushing the central health ministry to declare the outbreak of the disease as a national medical emergency. The group is made largely of students from various universities who are pleading for action to prevent more deaths. On 5 December, the students marched from Jantar Mantar to the health and family welfare ministry demanding urgent medical attention and relief to the affected in Malkangiri.
The group is part of the larger Malkangiri Solidarity Network comprising student movements, welfare organisations and activists from across India. The network organised a series of demonstrations in different cities - Delhi, Guwahati, Nanded, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Thiruvananthapuram - between 30 November and 5 December to press the demand for immediate intervention in the tribal district.
After the march, representatives of the group met with officials of the health ministry, including some associated with the National Rural Health Mission, who initially tried to pass the buck to the Odisha government - health is a state subject - but eventually agreed to instruct the state health department "to look into the matter immediately".
"Initially, they showed reluctance to own responsibility, claiming there are no 'magic solutions' and that vaccination programmes have started in the district recently," said Devangana of the Malkagiri Solidarity Group. "They also tried to argue that medical experts have not been able to identify or 'single out' the problem and hence they cannot promise anything."
Later, the officials called Odisha's Additional Health Secretary Pramod Mehta and asked him to send a "mobile" team -- including representatives from the Women and Child Development department - to look into what is lacking in medical facilities in Malkangiri.
The solidarity group welcomed the move, but expressed disappointment that the the ministry did not declare it a medical emergency or promise something concrete. "At least it is one step in the right direction," said Akash, a member of the group from JNU.
Activists are frustrated with the Odisha government's response to the deaths. Adding to their ire, a "high-level expert committee" constituted by the state last month to look into the deaths has attributed them to the consumption of "poisonous seeds". Indeed, the affected villagers have called the committee's report "ludicrous", pointing out that babies as young as six months old were unlikely to venture into the forest and consume poisonous seeds.
Malkangiri has suffered the ravages of Japanese Encephalitis earlier as well, most recently in 2011 and 2012, when the disease claimed hundreds of lives. But even after such devastation, activists claim, medical facilities have barely improved. Worse, the state is trying to blame the deaths on the "ignorance of tribals".
To add to this apathy, even complaints filed with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the National Human Rights Commission, the latest on 25 November, haven't resulted in any meaningful action. In fact, the NCPCR took suo moto cognizance of the deaths, but a promised visit of its members to the district has not materialised.
In the meantime, the poor tribals of Malkangiri continue to suffer. Last month, District Collector K Sudarshan Chakravarthy said 33 villages had been affected by encephalitis and at least 46 children suspected to be suffering from the disease were in Malkangiri District Hospital. In all, Chakravarthy informed, 114 blood samples had been tested, 51 of which tested positive.
In the days since, activists fear, the numbers would only have increased given the absence of adequate medical an emergency care.