A large section of politicians takes pride in saying that between 2005 and 2015 India has freed 270 million people from the curse of poverty, and the percentage of poverty was reduced from 50% to 28%. If this is true, why do so many poor people die untimely deaths each year, right from Kanyakumari to Kashmir? Are we living in such a boastful world where truth has become more dependent on statements than facts?

The children dying of encephalitis in Muzaffarpur have exposed the truth behind these figures about poverty. Amid the sloganeering about eradication of poverty, the truth remains that, even today, 360 million Indians are deprived of health, nutrition, education, and sanitation facilities. The Hindi-speaking states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh top the chart on this front. More than half of the multidimensional poor live in these four states. It’s not surprising then that even flies and mosquitoes herald death for them.

According to the Global Nutrition Report released last year, 24% of the world’s total malnourished population resides in India. Of the world’s total malnourished children, 30% live in India. Is the 21st century a dream or a tragedy for these children? You decide.

Whenever death pounces upon them, the media and politicians make a hue and cry about it. All this happens in the fashion of a pastime, in which the priorities keep changing with the times. This is the reason that in Hindi speaking states neither are the diseases being treated, nor are the patients being cured. Let’s take the case of Muzaffarpur. The cameras and microphones flashing on various TV channels are spewing new truths and facts all the time. Some are taking doctors to task, while on others some nurse’s statement is being projected as a universal truth. It’s true that it was the media that brought the issue of the death of these children from the remote area of Muzaffarpur to the power centres of Delhi and Patna. However, it is also true that the death of a poor person should not be turned into a spectacle. Too much and too loud a noise has turned such as serious issue into a spectacle.

Let’s come to the politicians now. The Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government rules in Bihar. The leaders of this coalition should have shown some seriousness at this hour of urgency but they did not. A minister said that this disease has been caused by eating litchi, while another even asked the score of the India-Pakistan cricket match during the press conference. The Muzaffarpur member of Parliament (MP) Ajay Nishad even called it a result of 4G, that is—gaon (village), gandagi (uncleanliness), gareebi (poverty) and garmi (heat). A large number of children who died of encephalitis right under the nose of Nishad belonged to the Muzaffarpur district. As much as 90.14% of the total population of this district is considered rural and 24% people here live below the poverty line. These are the figures from the 2011 census. As far as uncleanliness is considered, Muzaffarpur has slid down 39 notches to the 387th place in the last few days, as compared to the 348th place it held in 2018.

Now, the heat. During May and June, the temperature here remains around 45°C. Although the MP may not have any control over the temperature, the responsibility for eradicating, or at least reducing, poverty and uncleanliness definitely falls on him. When a ruckus erupted over this, the MP explained that his statement was misconstrued. However, he will only be proved right if he explains what has been done to eradicate poverty and dirtiness in his area during his tenure. Like other parts of the country, how much has urbanization has increased in his area?

Nishad has become a member of Parliament only for the second time, but the senior and older representatives of people, and those who have been in power for a long time, should bring out a white paper on what have they done to abolish poverty and build up clean surroundings.

It is not that this applies only to Bihar. Unfortunately, the condition is the same in almost half the country. The curse of poverty forces a large section every day to die rather than to live. Had it not been so, the number of people dying in the extreme weather would not have increased each year. The poor die of heat, of floods and of fever. The winter months also prove fatal for them.

There’s an old saying—the poor dies in every situation. How long will we continue to wash our hands of our duty by turning such tragedies into sayings and idioms?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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