Despite tall claims made by central and state governments about development schemes carried out in tribal and rural areas, the reality is starkly different as is evident in Maharashtra's Thane district. Data reveal that the number of infant deaths in the district continue to remain high since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Figures from Thane Zila Parishad (ZP) reveal that a total of 741 infants has died in the period between April 2020 to July 2021. 121 children and 115 mothers have also died in the district during this period. An infant death is recorded when a child dies before the age of 1; a child death is recorded if the age is from 1-5; a maternal death is assumed when the mother dies in childbirth or within six months of delivery.
"During the pandemic, all the medical facilities were being used for Covid-19 patients, be it emergency ambulances on helpline number 108 or human resources in health and child and women welfare departments. This is an inexcusable mistake. The high number of deaths is due to government's mismanagement," said Indavi Tulpule of Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, an organisation working for labourers in remote areas of Thane.
Thane district has five tehsils with a sizable tribal population, a backward region in terms of development of roads, accessibility to healthcare, etc. A lack of adequate infrastructure in these areas of the district impacts the availability of immediate healthcare aid to the people in need among the tribal population.
As per data acquired by Newsclick (shown in the table below), it could be seen that the number of infant deaths and child deaths drastically increased with the start of the pandemic in 2020. 547 infant deaths and 94 child deaths were reported in 2020-21, against 76 infant deaths and 20 child deaths in the preceding year.
Table (ID - Infant Deaths, CD - Child Deaths)
During the pandemic, Anganwadi sevikas and ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers were given the task of carrying out surveys related to Covid-19 symptoms among the general population. The restriction on the movement of people due to pandemic-induced lockdowns had a negative effect on the tribal population, leading to an increase in the number of deaths in the community.
Newsclick attempted to locate figures related to the number of live births in the district, but the government portal didn't have the updated information. Dr Manish Renghe, a district health officer, told Newsclick that he doesn't have the information with him in person but said that it should be available on the District Health portal. When we checked, that portal also didn't have the updated data related to the number of live births.
District administration in Thane has accepted that there was a lack of services during the pandemic. "To contain the spread of Covid-19 in the district was a bigger challenge, as the district is amongst the worst-affected in India. The healthcare system was fighting to contain and control coronavirus. I won't say that health workers failed to do work in tribal areas because they have done more work in the last one and a half years. The number of infant deaths has increased because the focus was different," said Eknath Shinde, the Guardian Minister of Thane.
"I assure you, in the next one year, the number of infant deaths will be much lesser than what it is today. We will do everything to stop it," Shinde added.
The state government has announced a number of schemes overtime to overcome challenges related to maternal health and child-births, including Janani Suraksha Yojana and Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakaram, with an aim to provide nourishment for pregnant women, regular check-ups, etc. Despite these schemes being free, their implementation has been criticised by a host of organisations working in the sector.
Meanwhile, Dr Manish Renghe informed NewsClick that his department has initiated a course correction. "It is true that the health infrastructure was busy in containing coronavirus, causing an increase in the number of infant deaths. But we have started working on the forceful implementation of Janani Shishu and Janani Suraksha schemes," he said. Dr Ranghe also said that Thane is a huge district with 6 municipalities and four municipal councils, and with a population of close to 2 crores. "These deaths are from all parts of the district and not just the remote areas. But we accept that this needs to be improved," he said.
Thane is next to Mumbai in Maharashtra. A part of the district is highly developed and affluent, while another still lacks basic infrastructure facilities such as schools, roads, hospitals, water, electricity, etc. Many issues in the district have resulted from a gap of development between the affluent areas and poor areas. Lack of the simplest of facilities in the richer areas of the district garners more media attention as compared to the under-developed regions, causing consistent neglect in those regions.