Pilgrims’ Progress: Children get vaccinated in Bihar en route to Shravani Mela
by Anupam Srivastava
DEOGHAR (Bihar), August 2005: The annual pilgrimage to Deogarh brings tens of thousands of pilgrims who have walked the 105-km stretch between Sultanganj and Deoghar – two ancient holy spots in Bihar. All of them wear saffron, have collected water from the river in Sultanganj and have trekked their way through the Suia Pahad, or the “mountain of needles”. All of them have put the water in vessels suspended at either end of a bamboo staff balanced on their shoulders. All are limping, or walking slowly with their bandaged feet, on their way to the ‘Shravani Mela’, a fair held during the rainy season, in Deogarh. Many among them are also travelling with their children or grandchildren.
Munai Tatwa, 60, is travelling with his wife and grandson Karan who is three and a half years old. The child’s parents are not on the pilgrimage, but the grandparents did not wish to leave Karan behind. “We have taken great care to keep him well on this difficult route,” he says. Munai was happy that the vaccinator reached him here. “I am impressed. Wherever I go, vaccinators reach me,” he says. “Thank you,” he adds.
There was reason to worry. In 2002, the polio virus had been active along the pilgrims’ routes. With nearly 200,000 people coming in everyday, and many staying on to rest and recuperate before starting their return journey on foot, or by a means of transport, the capacity to meet the water and sanitation needs of the town is fully stretched. The facilities on the route are almost nonexistent, and thousands of people depend on the limited facilities. Many of them use fields for defecation and, since all of them are barefooted, hygiene gets compromised, says Dr. Srikant Singh, who is one of the team of doctors posted along the pilgrims’ route.
Considering the number of people continuously on the move, UNICEF identified thirty-nine locations in five districts of Bihar and Jharkhand which were the main routes and gateways for the pilgrims. Each location was served by a two-person team whose brief was to “walk with people and vaccinate their children.” Converting his brief into action, Dilip Kumar, a vaccinator, watches the pilgrims trickling into a pilgrims’ shelter ten kilometers away from Deoghar. His eyes are accustomed to spotting under-five children, and his hands deft at pulling out the vial and giving them two drops of the vaccine.
Even as children remain joyfully engrossed in the festivities, savouring sweets, or getting their heads shaved as part of the “mundan” ceremony, they will go back without the threat of contracting poliomyelitis. Three-year-old Ajay is getting his hair removed in the main temple crowded with people who are bathing, singing, shouting, sitting with lamps burning in their palms, or standing in serpentine queues that slowly move towards the main shrine. His mother looks contented as the barber sharpens his knife and removes his hair. “I have been looking after him…giving him clean food and water as much as possible. And, yes, he has had polio drops,” she says.