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Death no stranger in Indian village

Sad Irony: Heavy rain helped farmers, but it also brought disease and dirty water that killed their children

By John Stackhouse
First published Jan. 2, 1995

Biharipur, India

Rahisa put down her broom and took a seat on the family's charpoy, a woven cot that her eldest child Akila had pulled out for the occasion of visitors.

Perhaps in her late 30s, or maybe in her late 40s - she does not know - Rahisa looked haggard and weary. As she reclined in the cot, she began to speak slowly of the season that has just past, a season of child mortality in Biharipur.

Over the past few months, 10 children in the village - two of them Rahisa's - have died. Some fell to malaria, some to diarrhea, some to viral fever, a few to causes unknown.

For Rahisa, however, there is a certain stunning sameness to it all, as if the death of a child is a painfully endless procession marching through the lives of so many mothers in Biharipur.

"I once had 10 children," she muttered. "These were the fifth and sixth to die."

Although no one keeps formal records, 1994 was one of the worst years for child sickness and death in Biharipur that anyone can remember. Almost every family has a child who fell seriously ill. And almost every adult can point to a hut where the sound of a wailing mother was heard last summer or autumn.

Across much of northern India last year, child mortality wandered freely through villages like Biharipur, as malaria and diarrhea renewed their virulence with the nation's youth.

The cause, health experts say, was a sad irony. The tumultuous monsoon, which benefited so many of Biharipur's farmers, also took so many of their children. For with the abundant rains that made sugar cane stand three metres high came squadrons of mosquitoes and deep ponds of dirty water.

Nature's very life-giving system also gave death.

In Biharipur, however, many, or perhaps all, of the deaths could have been avoided. That is, if most children did not sleep next to their family's livestock, and if the government health worker visited the village every month instead of every quarter, and if children did not defecate in the ponds near their homes, and if parents boiled the well-water. But those remain alien thoughts to habit and need.

When Rahisa's 10th child was born last winter, two months prematurely, she knew he would not be long for the world. The boy survived for a few weeks on cow's milk, not long enough for his parents to give him a name.

The death of Rahisa's ninth child, Meskina, was less expected. Playful, even rambunctious, four-year-old Meskina was a terror in her corner of Biharipur - until the day last September when she began vomiting and suffering diarrhea.

Rahisa and her husband Bhure Khan, a farmer and milkman, recounted Meskina's final days without noting their mistakes. When the girl fell ill, Rahisa took her to the village quack, Rajinder Singh Yadev, who also serves as landlord, school teacher and political organizer. The "headman", as Rajinder Singh is known, gave her a shot of the antibiotic tetracycline for free.

When nothing happened, Rahisa summoned another quack, a fresh high school graduate named Prem Pal, who also gave the girl a shot of tetracycline, this time for 10 rupees (40 cents). Rahisa also gave the girl a homemade solution of salt and lemon mixed with water, but it did not stop the dehydration from diarrhea.

During those frightening days, Meskina would not eat a morsel of rice or roti. She would only take the unboiled water that Rahisa hauls from the dirty well down the lane.

When still Meskina showed no signs of improvement, her parents took her by bicycle to the local town, Tilhar, five kilometres away. There, they paid a private doctor 50 rupees ($2) for another injection and a pill.

Meskina's condition did not change. "Three shots and not even one made a difference," Rahisa said.

A few days later, Bhure Khan, the father, carried Meskina's little body from the village, down a dirt road and over a bridge, to a small grave wedged between a foot path and a cane field.

In the chill of a northern Indian winter, when families huddle around smokey piles of embers for warmth, it is not easy to imagine those feverish summer nights that brought with them such pain. As hacking coughs rise through the dusk from almost every home, respiratory illness is this season's vise-grip on the village's health.

Around one pile of embers a few of Rahisa's neighbours gather to tell of their experience in the season of death.

Jai Devi, a mother of five, told of her youngest son shivering in the torrid summer heat, another victim of diarrhea, It took her husband one week to find the time to take his wife and son to the local town doctor. It was too late.

Veeta, 18, told of her four-month-old daughter who died last month. "She was fine until one evening she started to cry," Veeta said. "She died that night. Some spirit must have come to take her away.

What else could it be?"

Veeta did not have money to take her girl to the doctor, not when her in-laws had just cut down one of Biharipur's tallest trees to repay the 2,000-rupee dowry loan. Instead, perhaps in comfort, she referred to buri hawa, or "bad air," the spirit blamed for taking so many children.

Next door, a young woman named Sharda spoke up to tell of her six- month-old daughter who died two years ago. Since then, Sharda has not been allowed to enter her husband's village. "If she (Sharda) had been to school, she would not have all these problems," her mother said.

Nanni, a young mother who also has never been to school, said she stopped taking her children to the vaccination clinic because the needles caused too much pain for them.

"Do you think those needles help?" asked another neighbour, Hasmukhi, whose name means "the face that is always smiling."

As she flashed her broad grin and big, if somewhat bucked, teeth, Hasmukhi did not seem to realize that she may be the next mother in Biharipur to bury a child. It would not be her first.

Hasmukhi's first child died at birth. Her second child, a three-year-old daughter, died about three years ago from fever. Her third, an 18-month-old girl, now sits in her arms, covered with red spots. None of the children were vaccinated against basic diseases like measles.

"I did not think it would help," Hasmukhi said.

Some still in mourning, others locked in sober thought, the young mothers seem to understand the philosophy of their neighbour, Ram Sri, a grandmother now in her 50s.

"What can I tell you about death?" Ram Sri asked them. "Some are born. Some die."

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