One of the writers of this article is reminded of an incident from when he was teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, which was then functioning from a campus in Chandkheda in Ahmedabad. On 16 December 2011, a dog picked up a two-month-old child, Akash, who lay on the ground while his parents were busy cooking or eating dinner at around 10 pm. When they searched for their child, his body, eaten up, was found in a nearby field.
Laxman, 22 years old, and Raina, 20, belonged to the Bhuria Scheduled Tribe community from Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh and had come to work in Ahmedabad as migrant labourers. Akash was their first child after their marriage hardly a year before. That such an incident happened on an IIT campus points to the widening gap between the advanced technological development being pursued for the elite of the country and the living standards of unorganised masses dependent on daily wages or contractual jobs for their survival. When the new campus for IIT Gandhinagar started getting built at Palaj at around the same time, a sensitive director, Dr Sudhir Jain, made sure that the first constructions that took place were of houses and toilets for the labourers.
Now a similar gruesome incident has taken place. On 23 June, in the Bah tehsil of Agra district, a 26-year-old woman, Shilpi, went to relieve herself in the Chambal ravines late in the evening. She started experiencing labour pains. She fell unconsciousness after giving birth to a child, but by the time she regained consciousness the child was gone, probably taken away by some wild animal. This is a sign that in spite of all the claims about development, things have not changed much, at least for the underprivileged.
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi—who was widely regarded for his commitment to two prominent values one of which is “truth”—to declare that with the construction of 11 crore toilets rural India was open defecation free, meaning thereby that 99% people had access to a toilet. The reality is that most toilets built during the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan are not usable for various reasons, including corruption, another vice that the government claims to have eliminated.
The latest incident also points to the failure of the Janani Suraksha Yojana of the National Health Mission, whose objective is to prevent infant and maternal mortality by encouraging institutional delivery for poor pregnant women. Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) are supposed to look after such pregnant women. It is a matter of enquiry whether the ASHA of village Jodhpura (which is supposedly open defecation free) in Pinahat block of Agra, where Shilpi lived with her husband Sunil Kumar, was aware of the advanced stage of Shilpi's pregnancy. The Gram Prahdan Gajendra Singh did not recommend a toilet for their home as Sunil’s Aadhaar card had registered the address of a different village Raghunathpura.
That the incident happened in Agra, famous world over for the Taj Mahal, is a cruel reminder of Mumtaz Mahal’s death during her 14th child birth. Looked at from another perspective, the Taj Mahal is a monument of maternal mortality.
The lackadaisical attitude towards pregnancy in our society is detrimental to the health of the mother and the yet-to-be-born child for his/her remaining life. This is obvious from the number of child births which took place on trains while migrant workers were returning home on Shramik special trains during the Covid-19 crisis. On 9 May, Mamta Yadav, who belongs to Chhapra, Bihar, delivered a baby on a train from Jamnagar to Muzaffarpur in Agra, while Shubhadra, a native of Ambedkarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, delivered a baby on the way from Jalandhar to Akbarpur in another train same day.
On 10 May Sunita delivered a baby on a train from Valsad to Lucknow just before reaching Lucknow. While the women must have been tested for Covid-19 before boarding the respective trains, nobody bothered about their advanced stages of pregnancy as they were embarking on a long and arduous journey. Eighty deaths admitted by the Indian Railways on Shramik specials between 9 and 27 May point to the inhuman travel conditions that these women were also subjected to.
On the other hand, due to the threat of Covid-19, patients who needed attention for non-Covid reasons are being neglected. Imagine a pregnant woman arriving at a hospital being asked to undergo a Covid-19 test first, the result of which could take two days to arrive. On 5 June, 30-year-old Neelam, in the eighth month of her pregnancy, died in an ambulance in Greater Noida after being turned away by three government and five private hospitals for the lack of a bed.
All of these incidents prove we take life of the underprivileged in this country for granted. The country’s security has become a major issue these days vis-à-vis our neighbours China, Pakistan and Nepal. But we hardly appear to be bothered about the security of individual citizens. Even if we were to make our borders secure, of what use will they be to a child or a mother who died because of negligence of the state?
The country which is now behind only the United States and China in terms of spending on external defence is very stingy when it comes to spending on health care. While the class which clapped from their homes and lit candles to appreciate the medical and other staff dealing with the Covid-19 crisis might feel secure in their homes with either a guaranteed salary at the end of the month or comfortable bank balances, the class which was walking back home on highways has been left to fend for itself.
The poor development indices, whether related to education or health care, availability of toilets or proper habitation, malnourishment or fertility rate, do not make the vast masses involved in primary or secondary sectors of economy feel secure at all. Majority of the population on subsistence livelihoods are devoid of the sense of security which should come along with development. It is high time we took a hard look at the question of equitable access to the fruits of development.
Sandeep Pandey is social activist and Kushagra Kumar is a student. The views are personal.