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What Bihar’s changing village bazaars say about the state

Village markets are changing in Bihar — as they are in the other states #ETTG reported from. This piece looks at some of those changes — and advances hypotheses to explain these changes.

Bihar can’t even count how many dengue cases it has had, let alone fight the disease

In Bhagalpur, the historic Bihar city on the southern banks of the river Ganga, doctors disagree about the threat of dengue in the area. Vijay Kumar, the civil surgeon for Bhagalpur, says dengue is under control. His statement has been flatly contradicted by doctors at Bhagalpur’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital. The hospital identified its first dengue case about four or five years ago. Since then, said an administrator, the number of cases has grown. “We had 441 confirmed cases last year – almost double from the previous year.”

Bihar’s exposure to dengue is relatively recent but the state needs to start fighting the disease. Fighting dengue can be easy because there are clear measures that need to be taken. Since there is no cure and no vaccines for the disease, doctors can only treat symptoms – pain, chills, fever, nausea and vomiting, rashes and bleeding. In most cases the disease subsides but a few cases may be so severe that without hospitalisation and treatment it can lead to death. If a patient has excessive bleeding or a very low platelet count he might be given a platelet infusion.

But fighting dengue is also difficult because it requires meticulous and consistent control of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – the main species of mosquitoes that carry and spread the dengue virus. This can be done using anti-mosquito sprays to kill the mosquitoes that are normally active during the day. Dengue control also involves thwarting the mosquitoes from breeding, which can be done by reducing places – any stagnant water – where they can lay eggs. To ensure this, regular water supply is essential so that people stock less water. Also important is good garbage disposal.

Given the meticulous work needed to combat diseases like Dengue, how is Bihar doing? And what does its response tell us about the state?

Lessons from Bihar’s 2016 dengue outbreak : Migration, poverty, garbage are spreading new diseases

In 2016, dengue hammered Krah. As many as 100 people living in this densely-packed, predominantly Muslim ghetto of about 1,000 families near Biharsharif contracted the disease, say residents. The scale of the outbreak was unprecedented. As Mohammad Ilyas, a young tailor who works and lives in Krah, said: “We never had such an outbreak earlier.”

The disease itself is a newcomer to the region. Krah and surrounding areas have been battered by many diseases. But many of the old diseases are in decline now, according to Dr Lakshmi Chaudhary who runs a clinic in adjacent Silao. “There were only two-three cases of jaundice last year,” he said. “Hepatitis B is even lower. We now almost never see cases of diarrhoea.”

Here, people now suffer from other ailments. There is more cancer, dengue and chikungunya, said Chaudhary.

This is the story across Bihar. Doctors, epidemiologists and people living across the state say that in the last ten years the state’s disease burden has seen three large changes. First, some infectious diseases like kala azar, measles, diphtheria, pertussis and polio that used to wreak havoc earlier are far less common now. Second, people are falling to new diseases like drug-resistant tuberculosis, dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis and arsenic poisoning. Third, some of the old infectious diseases – hepatitis A and E, malaria, pneumococcal meningitis and typhoid – are claiming more patients than before.

This, as the article says, is very different from the epidemiological transitions in other states. And gets into the reasons why. Part two, out tomorrow, will look at the state’s response to these causal factors.

Cancer has exploded in Bihar as lakhs of people drink water poisoned with arsenic

It is a day like any other at Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.

The driveway is lined with people who have travelled a long way to get to this charitable hospital in Patna. Families sit huddled, holding their bags close. The lobby is even more crowded, rather like the ticket buying hall of a train station.  The hospital gets between 60 and 100 patients every day – a substantial number for a 400-bed hospital. Ashok Ghosh, who heads research at the hospital, said that the load is such that “surgery has a two-month waiting list even though the disease might become inoperable by then”.

On the morning this reporter met him, Ghosh made a wry comment about the rush, asking: “When you entered this hospital, did this look like a cancer hospital or a general hospital?”

One reason this hospital is receiving so many patients is the dismal state of public healthcare in Bihar. Government hospitals are understaffed and poorly equipped. While the state has seen a jump in the number of private hospitals, most of them are too expensive for middle income and poor families in the state. Most of them, Ghosh said, end up coming to Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.

But lack of affordable care is not the only reason. Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, one of the best cancer treatment facilities in India, gets about 25,000 patients every year from around the country. In contrast, Mahavir Cancer Sansthan gets nearly as many at about 22,000 patients last year despite drawing patients from just Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. Many of these patients suffer from cancers of the gall bladder or liver, both which are associated with arsenic toxicity.

An update from Patna’s Maroofganj mandi

ten days into #notebandi, patna’s Maroofganj mandi had frozen.

As demonetisation enters its second week, traders in Patna’s Maroofganj mandi are seeing something unprecedented.

In the last seven days, the supply of new stocks in this wholesale market, which supplies cooking oil, spices, rice, wheat and pulses to shopkeepers across Patna, has plummeted. The supply of cooking oil, for instance, is down by 80%.

Talk to traders selling spices, grains or pulses and you hear similar numbers. “Do you see how quiet this market is?” said an accountant at a rice shop. “Till 10 days ago, you would not have been able to walk down this street.”

In the same period, orders from shopkeepers have fallen steeply as well. Most of them cannot buy as much stock as before, said Abhijit Kumar, who runs a wholesale shop for spices, because they have only Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes – both derecognised as legal tender by the government.

The strange thing is: despite the contraction in both supply and demand, commodity prices are stable.

30 days later, around the 10th of December, i went back to the mandi seeking an update on how it is doing. Here is what we found.

Dilip Kumar Singh said the situation at the mandi was the result of some traders travelling to Gaya, Muzaffarpur and beyond to take advantage of low prices in parts of the hinterland. However, the traders this reporter met denied this. Instead, they flagged other concerns.

Sanjib Kesari, a wholesaler, said business had improved and more customers were now coming to the mandi. Prices, too, were moving – cooking oil, for instance, had risen Rs 3-Rs 4 in the last 20 or so days. But, the situation was nowhere near normal.

Wholesalers’ volumes remain modest. According to them, two factors are at work…

Ground report: In Bihar, murmurs of protest break the sullen silence against demonetisation

Banka was the last stop before returning to Patna in this reporter’s travels from North Bihar to South Bihar, to get a sense of how notebandi was impacting the structures of everyday life.

The journey had started with Raxaul, on the India-Nepal border, on November 18, exactly 10 days after notebandi was announced. Heading south, stopping at Bettiah, Gopalganj and Darbhanga and Gaya before reaching Bhagalpur, the common finding along the road was predictable.

As in other parts of the country, economic activity had fallen steeply in every town – be it Raxaul, Bettiah, Patna or elsewhere. In each of them, cash was in short supply, people were struggling to find work. Farm prices had collapsed in parts of the state. In other places, vegetables were being rerouted to bigger markets where there was still some purchasing power. Migrants had returned from the towns where they had been working.

Given this litany of hurt, what was less easy to understand was the popular reaction. As in the rest of India, despite grave difficulties, people had stayed calm. In the weeks gone by, several hypotheses had been advanced to explain this. Did people support notebandi despite difficulties? Did they think, as some people in a village near Gaya said, that notebandi would result in lower inflation and reduce inequality?

In that village, support for notebandi had stemmed from anger about greater inequity over land ownership. One zamindar owned 1,200 acres – which he had stopped giving out to his fellow villagers for sharecropping. The result? Every household in the village eked out a living by either working as labour in Gaya or migrating outside Bihar to work in brick kilns even as the land in their village lay fallow.

That explanation, interesting as it was, did not explain the calm in Bihar’s towns and cities.

And so, when we asked the people of Banka why they were silent, we got some fascinating answers — each far more convincing than the condescending bilge trotted out by pundits sitting far, far away.

Money is trickling into the banks of Bihar – but is not being distributed evenly

A month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8, cash availability is starkly uneven across Bihar.

In relatively affluent parts of the capital city of Patna, the long queues outside ATMs seen in the first week of notebandi, when the government invalidated 86% of the currency in circulation, creating a massive cash crunch, are history. In poorer parts of the city, however, one can still see 50-odd people lined up outside ATMs at most times. Travel outside the capital and this pattern repeats itself.

In bigger towns, residents and bank managers said the cash flow has improved. In North Bihar’s Darbhanga, Ramakant Mishra, manager of a Punjab National Bank branch in Qila Ghat, brings out cheques encashed by his customers on November 30, the day this reporter visited his branch. Most cheques ranged between Rs 10,000 to Rs 24,000…

…However, venture deeper into the Gaya district and you will find that cash is just as hard to come by as it was in the days immediately after the demonetisation was announced.