The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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There has been no improvement in the West Bengal polio scenario. On the contrary, things look bleaker than ever on that front. Bengal now has the third highest number of polio victims, and in this it is in the distinguished company of Uttar Pradesh (with the highest number) and Bihar. In 2001, there was only one new case of polio; but in 2002, this number has risen to 48. Looking at UP and Bihar together, the connection between the rise of polio, social backwardness, religion and caste, and — most important — misgovernance becomes evident. West Bengal must face up to the fact that it has now placed itself in the same league with these two states. Without this basic acknowledgement, no substantial difference could be made over and above what has already been done, or not done, about polio. It is futile to expect either consciousness or conscience from the other two states. But it would perhaps be too pessimistic to write Bengal off in that manner, although it might appear less and less unjust to do so.

Not only has the consciousness-raising programmes not worked in the most backward districts (Birbhum, South 24 Parganas and Murshidabad), the health department seems to have been singularly unsuccessful in utilizing the considerable amounts of money given to the state by, say, the India National Polioplus programme run by the Rotary. This organization has already quite successfully assisted in the near-eradication of polio in south India, particularly Tamil Nadu. So the grim situation in West Bengal, Bihar and UP must be put to the failure of the government to make proper use of the funds. It is also significant that the government is still dealing with the situation in a typically bureaucratic manner. It has formed yet another “core committee” with representatives from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the health department and the Rotary. The fact that the state health minister, Mr Surya Kanta Mishra, heads the committee does not bode particularly well for West Bengal. The problem is likely to remain mired in the usual misgovernance, lack of political will and corruption. District-level administrative bodies and non-governmental organizations will have to make a far more concerted effort to include local religious and community leaders and teachers to eradicate first the ignorance and prejudices regarding the polio vaccine, and then the disease itself. The Rotary’s idea that a festive atmosphere must reign at the vaccination booth is a bright one, but more substantial rethinkings have to be in evidence before the committee can win back confidence in its ability to handle the crisis effectively.

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