There are very few districts in India those can match the financial muscle of Keonjhar in Odisha. Yet, the district suffers the ignominy of having the highest number of stunted, underweight children and anaemic pregnant women among the 30 districts in the State.
After losing two sons soon after their births successively in 2020 and 2021, 29-year-old Sisira Dehury, was determined to save her third child this year.
She undertook a 20-km autorickshaw ride from the remote Emiri village under the Bansapal block of Keonjhar and spent two months in a maa gruha — maternity waiting home — prior to her delivery.
All her efforts to save the child, however, proved futile when her five-day-old died in the special newborn care units (SNCU) at the District Headquarters Hospital, Keonjhar, on September 18. Ms. Dehury said, “I could not breastfeed my son before he closed his eyes.”
Similarly, doctors at the hospital could not save Jayanti Chatamba’s three-day-old, who was referred there by a private nursing home. Authorities said that the infant died of sepsis and associated complications on September 17.
In the SNCU, four newborns died in a span of 48 hours recently. It is alleged that parents lost 13 newborns in the District Headquarters Hospital between September 1-18. The findings of an enquiry conducted by the Chief District Medical Officer (CDMO) states, “Considering the individual case findings, it was found that the babies were critically sick. All necessary treatments available with the hospitals were provided to them to save their lives. There was no evidence of negligence in the management process and the death of the babies has been due to the disease process and its complications.” The CDMO has now been transferred.
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But, parents have refused to accept the findings of the probe, claiming instead there were not enough doctors to attend to the babies in the hospital.
At the Bansapal community health centre, six women were waiting for their delivery at the maa gruha. They had preferred this option compared to waiting at home as ambulances could not reach them in their villages in case of an emergency.
As many as 128 children have been born born in the community health centre so far this month. Except for two or three cases, most babies weighed around 2.5 kg at birth; some weighed only 2 kg. Low birth weight has been defined by the World Health Organization as weight at birth of less than 2.5 kg.
The irony is that Keonjhar district is financially healthy. It has a ₹15,000 crore separate fund in its kitty, apart from the government’s regular welfare funds.
But it fares poorly compared to other districts in the State when it comes to health indices. Of the total 13.48 lakh families with stunted, wasted or underweight children and anaemic pregnant women in Odisha, 98,918 such families are from Keonjhar.
According to the National Family Health Survey-5, 25.9% of women in Keonjhar have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below normal as against the State average of 20.8%. Similarly, 74.7% of pregnant women in Keonjhar were reported anaemic as against the State average of 61.8%.
Mohan Majhi, Keonjhar MLA and the BJP’s Chief Whip in the Assembly, said “According to the Odisha government, there are 5,525 villages which cannot be easily accessed in the State. Keonjhar has such 141 villages. Keonjhar accounts for 26% of the iron ore reserve of the country and it has ₹8,583 crore lying with the District Mineral Foundation. The corrupt administrations at the district and State levels are chasing misplaced priorities while Keonjhar’s children are malnourished and becoming victim of diseases.”
Keonjhar has close to ₹7,000 crore under the Odisha Mineral Bearing Areas Development Corporation (OMBADC) for the welfare of the population affected by mining activities.
“It is an irony that the poorest of the society suffer in rich Keonjhar district. Despite Keonjhar making a huge contribution to the State exchequer, poor families, especially tribals, have been languishing without access to basic amenities. We should be ashamed of losing our children while we sit on piles of cash,” rued Himanshu Kumar, secretary of the Keonjhar Citizens’ Forum.