Monday, June 18, 2012

Encephalitis? Who cares?

It took more than two weeks for a rising toll of encephalitis deaths in Bihar to reach the headlines of the self-styled national press. ANAND VARDHAN tracks the coverage and non-coverage in a new column on the Hindi press.

Jun 18, 2012

Anand Vardhan

It is unsurprising that ground level stories from the Hindi heartland will first surface in the Hindi press. But even so, when people are dying of encephalitis in Bihar, how long should the news take to appear in the English language print media?

On Monday morning (June 18) the English press finally woke and gave the encephalitis epidemic in Bihar the space it deserved. Or at least the Indian Express did on its National Network page. The disease had been first reported in Patna editions of Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar Jansatta and Hindustan on 31.05.2012 . The following day (01.06.2012) Dainik Jagran had three reports on it Gaya me encephalitis se ek Bache ki Maut (one child dies of encephalitis in Gaya) , Naye chhetro me faili agyat bimari (the unknown disease spreads to new regions) and it took a dig at administrative confusion with the headline Apni apni dapli apna raag( Drums playing to different tunes).

It was only in second week of June that the Delhi editions of a section of Hindi press took note of this mysterious menace. Last week Bihar witnessed an alarming rise in the number of children succumbing to encephalitis. Hindi newspapers in their national editions (that’s what the papers claim their Delhi edition to be) have been reporting the scourge and the administrative and political response to it in varying proportions. One major Hindi daily hasn’t covered it at all.

Looking at, and sometimes looking for, this developing story in the cross section of Hindi press represented by four dailies Dainik Bhaskar, Hindustan, Dainik Jagran and Jansatta was always going to be significant for its points of convergence, divergence and possible contrast with the national edition (again an euphemism for Delhi edition) of four major English dailies: The Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express. The second exercise was a non-starter. The story was not there.

Reporting on the response of the Union Health Ministry to the staring crisis, Dainik Jagran had a news item with the headline ‘ Rahashmayee bimaari ke kaaran talashegi Kendriya Team’ ( Central team will inquire into the causes of the mysterious disease). The report was about the visit of a six member expert team of National Centre for Disease Control ( NCDC) to Muzaffarpur district in North Bihar. The district has been the worst affected with most number of deaths caused by the disease which has insidiously spread to Sitamarhi, Sheohar, Vaishali, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur, East Champaran, West Champaran, Gaya, Nawada, Bhojpur, Nalanda and even Patna district.

It is still called ‘mysterious’ because though the disease has been classified as ‘Acute Encephalitis Syndrome’( AES), its infectious agent remains to be identified and its treatment has been entirely symptom-based. For convenience in public communication, the government has decided to call the disease ‘dimaagi bukhar’ or the more sanskritised ‘mastisk jwar’ ( brain fever) . The same day ( 14.06.2012) Dainik Bhaskar reported Bihar me encephalitis se 18 aur bacche mare ( 18 more children die of encephalitis in Bihar) while Jansatta took note of an anti- government political agitation in the wake of the crisis. Its report Bihar ke swasthya mantri Ko barkhast karne ki maang ki vaam dalo ne (Left parties demand the dismissal of Bihar Health Minister) said that left parties in the state ( CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) and Forward Block) were demanding dismissal of Health Minister Ashwani Kumar Chaubey and were also planning stir against governmental apathy and administrative failures in addressing the menace of the killer disease.

On 14 th June, Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta had put the death toll at 129, while Dainik Jagran hadn’t put out any figure for that. And Hindustan had not reported it at all.

In days to follow, the reports or sometimes snippets that appeared in these papers were daily accounts of the rising number of deaths and one regarding a policy response from the visiting Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. On 15 th June, Dainik Bhaskar’s report was headlined Bihar me mastisk jwar kahar zari, phir 27 ki maut ( The menace of brain fever continues in Bihar, 27 more die) and put the death toll at 143 while Jansatta reported Dimaagi bukhar se ab tak 143 bacchon ki maut ( 143 children die of brain fever).

The daily death toll snippets had different numerical stories to tell on the following day (16.06.2012). Have a look.

For Dainik Jagran’s report Bihar me encephalitis se 16 aur bacchon ki maut ( 16 more children die of encephalitis in Bihar) the death toll had reached 139, while Dainik Bhaskar’s report Muzaffarpur Me Phir 19 bacho ki Maut’ ( 19 more children die in Muzaffarpur) contradicts its own death toll figure published the previous day by putting the number of deaths at 137. Jansatta had another figure . Quoting R P Ojha, Under Secretary in the Health Ministry, the paper put the death toll at 156 in its report Dimagi bukhar se Bihar me 156 bacchon ki maut , 82 ka Ilaaz zari ( 156 children die of brain fever in Bihar, 82 under treatment).

Interestingly, in their reports on 17 th June, Dainik Bhaskar ( Muzaffarpur me mastisk jwar se 17 bacho ki maut, 17 children die of brain fever in Muzaffarpur)and Dainik Jagran (Bihar me dimaagi bukhaar ne li 11 aur bachhon ki jaan, Brain fever claims lives of 11 more children in Bihar) somehow managed to have the same number for total number of deaths at 154. The numerical discrepancy, lies in their headlines. For Bhaskar 17 children had died in Muzaffarpur district alone the previous day (16 th June) while for Jagran 11 children died of the disease in the entire state the same day.)

Meanwhile, Dainik Jagran carried a related story on 15th June which took note of a policy response from Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh (Dimaagi bukhar wale ilako me pay jal ke liye 525 crores , 525 crores allocated for drinking water in brain fever affected areas) . On a visit to Bihar, he announced that the central government had decided to allocate 525 crore rupees for improving the quality of drinking water in encephalitis affected areas. This was seen in context of a general understanding that unhygienic drinking water could be one of the causes of the disease.

No editorial comment or feature story or opinion piece on this grave health challenge confronting rural Bihar was to be found in any major national Hindi daily. But even with limited expectations of a report or snippet , you could be disappointed as Hindustan has no space for the story yet.

Looking for the coverage and analysis of the story in national English print space was a non starter for the simple reason that for the four major dailies in question ( The Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express) the epidemic dimensions of encephalitis in rural Bihar was not a story at all. Not worth even an inch of column space. Ironically, the English dailies all had space for other reports filed by their Patna correspondents, and one of them found Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s thinly veiled attack on the communal image of Narendra Modi juicy enough to be put on the front page ( ‘Nitish hits back at Modi : NDA’s PM candidate must have secular image’ Indian Express, June 15, 2012). None of the Hindi dailies had such prime display for the Nitish- Modi diatribe saga.

For the national Hindi press, the menace of encephalitis in rural Bihar affecting the state’s most underprivileged sections ( a sizeable number of victims were malnourished children) was at least a story. But it hasn’t led to a critical reappraisal of the developmental paradigm that has engaged the media narrative on Bihar of late. The elements of human development need to figure more in the public policy discourse of Hindi print space.


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