Dhakka: In some parts of western Uttar Pradesh (UP), during the election season, a voter identification card or a ration card is the price some families ask, for allowing their kids to be vaccinated against polio.
In Dhakka village of the state’s Jyotiba Phule Nagar district, such requests come from the last among the very few families that say no to the government’s efforts to get their children vaccinated against the polio virus, which is endemic in these parts.
This is a far cry from July 2006 when over a 15-day period, most Muslim families refused the polio vaccine—which is administered orally—after a report in a local Urdu newspaper. The report, which said the vaccine contained ingredients that Muslims consider as haraam (an Arabic word for forbidden) found its way to a madrasa in Dhakka village.
Local push: Mohammed Afsar Hussain is one of the so-called local influencers used by Unicef and district health officials to bring families to the vaccination booth every month. Rahul Chandran / Mint
It’s a problem that has repeated itself elsewhere across UP and Maharashtra. The distribution of newspaper reports and pamphlets questioning the vaccine have led to several families staying away from the so-called polio rounds organized by the government.
The difficulties that volunteers face in administering polio vaccine in Dhakka and numerous other villages in western UP is reflective of the larger problems faced in polio eradication efforts across the country. While children receive several rounds of the vaccine, they don’t often stay in the body long enough to give immunity because the child suffers from diarrhoea, local volunteers say. Malnutrition, which many children in these areas suffer from, decreases the efficacy of the drug, too. So does unhygienic drinking water.
A village of some 15,000 people, Dhakka in Hasanpur sub-district is one of several areas in western UP that is designated a high-risk area for the wild polio virus by the government.
Within 15 days of the refusals, local community organizers from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or Unicef, and district administration officials got ulemas (religious leaders) of local madrasas to counter the claims, through sermons and appeals in Hindi and urdu publications.
“Earlier, the women used to hide their kids,” said Maulana Ghiyasuddin Qasmi, who teaches at the Jamia Millia Maariful Quran madrasa in nearby Ujhari town in Amroha, the Lok Sabha constituency under which Dhakka village falls. Qasmi wrote an appeal urging the community to not boycott the polio rounds.
“Pichle dinon mein ek fatwa tha ek tharaf se. Tho usko bathlana pada ki yeh sab kuch galath hai. Balki iska mazab se thalook nahi hai. (In the old days, there was a fatwa of a kind. Then we had to tell them [the villagers] that this is wrong. That it has nothing to do with religion),” said Mohammed Afsar Hussain, who is one of the so-called local influencers used by Unicef and district health officials to drive families to the vaccination booths every month.
Since then, local volunteers claim, the problem of refusals has largely disappeared. Most of the refusing families now use the vaccine as a bargaining chip to get government services. “Now, some 10-15% might refuse,” says 37-year-old Swaleha Khatoun, who is the government appointed accredited social health activist, or Asha worker as they are informally known. Khatoum says that if families raise the religious grounds for refusal, she points to her four-year-old daughter and says, “I’ll give it to her first.”
“If they still refuse, we make the (local) ration dealer to mention it,” says Khatoun, as a form of sly blackmail.
While the refusals are now sporadic, India still continues to be what scientists call an endemic country—basically, a country which records at least one case every year.
Of the 383 polio cases recorded globally, in the year to 28 April, India recorded only 36. This is significantly lower than the 203 recorded in the corresponding period last year. However, tellingly, 14 cases this year are of wild polio virus 1—a strain of virus that is considered deadliest because it spreads fast—as compared with four cases last year. Of the 18 countries that recorded polio cases in calender year 2008, India, with 599 cases came second only to Nigeria with 799.
The reasons, according to the local administration, are poor sanitation, malnutrition, migration, poor drinking water facilities. “In recent researches that we have conducted, we found that polio is not getting eradicated not because of not getting the drops, but because malnutrition, the lack of sanitation and clean drinking water,” said Ritu Maheshwari, district magistrate for Jyotiba Phule Nagar.
Though the polio eradication programme in the area has made considerable progress, villagers say much is required to be done for overall development—one of the key issues in this election. Qasmi says development will be a major issue this time around and that a large number of minorities in Amroha are likely to favour the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). “The BSP gave us an intermediate college. There has been development,” Qasmi said, referring to Ujhari town.
But all that is not always reflected in the villages. “The development that is happening in the rest of India has not come here,” Hussain said. There is no high school here. We have to go 15km for a high school. There is power only for about two hours a day. The closest health centre is in Ujhari town.” Some heads of the local madrasas say there is no clear way to tell which way people will vote. “The voters are too smart. They will tell us one thing, then go do another,” Qasmi said.
Hasanpur has 230,011 voters with the Amroha parliamentary constituency, which also includes part of the neighbouring Ghaziabad district, having 1.17 million voters. In this election, Amroha is expected to see a close fight among the candidates of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, the Congress party and an independent.
Harish Nagpal, the independent candidate, had won the 2004 election, securing 32% of the vote. BSP contender Maudood Madani is a strong contender; Mehboob Ali, who had lost to Nagpal in 2004, is the Samajwadi Party’s nominee from this seat. The Congress has fielded Mohammed Nafis Abbasi from this seat.