Patna: “All we wanted was clean drinking water and a doctor in our village, so we could save our children from the deadly chamki bukhar (Acute Encephalitis syndrome or AES).”
Paddy farmer Rajesh Sahani talked of the pain of losing two nephews the same day in June 2019 to what is colloquially called brain fever, a debilitating virus-borne disease that inflames the brain, sparks seizures, puts many victims into a coma and eventually kills them.
The AES outbreak panicked Sahni’s village of Harivanshpur in Bihar’s Vaishali district, 40 km north of here, and many left to save their children. Chaturi Sahni, Rajesh’s younger brother, who lost his two sons, moved his other two children to his wife’s village.
When seven children died among 40 families, they blocked the nearby National Highway (NH) 22, demanding better attention from their government: water, sanitation and health facilities.
What they got in response was a police case, a first information report (FIR) that named 19 villagers—mostly poor, Dalit labourers—in sections of the law related to rioting, disturbing peace and blocking a government servant from discharging his/her duties. A year later, we found that promises made about health facilities and withdrawing the FIR had not been kept; 13 of the accused are on bail, with legal expenses mounting and no end in sight to their legal battle.
The FIR was registered under sections 147 and 148 (rioting), 149 (unlawful assembly), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 283 (danger or obstruction in public way), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) of the Indian Penal Code, 1870, against 39 people, 20 of them unknown.
Of the 19 named in the FIR, many said they were not part of the protest on NH 22. Shatrughan Sahni, 60, could not have been there because he was paralysed and bed ridden on 18 June 2019, the day the FIR was lodged, said his daughter-in-law, Rinku Devi.
“My father-in-law was lying in our house when the protests took place on the road (the national highway),” she said. “He had been paralysed for over six months and never got out of the house.”
Sahni died in October 2019, some days after the case’s first hearing on 19 September 2019.
‘Protest Was Our Last Resort’
The residents of Harivanshpur had written several letters in 2019 to the government drawing its attention towards health issues in their area. Bihar reported 872 AES cases in 2019, and 176 children—most under 10—died, according to government data submitted to Parliament.
Irked with the lack of response, they printed “missing” posters of their member of Parliament (MP), Ram Vilas Paswan, now dead, and member of legislative assembly (MLA) Rajkumar Sah.
The posters were also pasted on the cattle and a prize money of Rs 15,000 for the MP and Rs 5,000 for the MLA announced for finding them.
When there was no government reaction, they blocked NH 22 for three hours.
After the sit-in, the MLA visited the village, and the government set up a temporary health camp and installed pipes and public water taps.
“But there is not a single drop we have got from these taps in the last six months,” said Devi. “We have to depend on the same chapakal (handpumps) like earlier.”
The village has no toilets, and everyone defecates in the fields. Vaishali district is yet to be declared free of open defecation. According to Swachh Bharat Mission (grameen) dashboard, up to 99.96% of the district’s people, according to government data, have toilets but not, it appears, Harivanshpur, which is not one of 603,177 Indian villages declared open defecation free by the Swachh Bharat Mission.
“The ASHA (accredited social health activists) workers visited our houses and told us to keep our surroundings clean to save our children from chamki bukhar,” said Devi. “But how are we supposed to do that?”
She explained how there had been no response to letters to local officials and the chief minister after the children started to die. They blocked NH 22 “so they do something immediately to save our children”, she said.
“It was our last resort,” said Sahni.
Promise To Withdraw Case Is Broken
Politicians who visited Harivanshpur after the protest assured them of facilities and that the FIR would be withdrawn.
Then senior superintendent of police (SSP), Vaishali, Manavjeet Singh Dhillon said the names of anyone found to be “wrongly named” in the FIR would be removed following “due procedure”.
A year on, none of these promises have been fulfilled, and only 12 people have been granted anticipatory bail.
The current SSP Manish Kumar told Article 14 that he had joined duty 40 days ago, and he would have to check developments.
“The FIR can only be quashed through court,” he said. “And the thing about fake names in the FIR is a matter of investigation.”
Little else has changed after the initial publicity.
Man Takes Loan To Fight Case
Ajay Kumar Thakur, the first one to be named in the Harivanshpur FIR, showed us a dry, rusting tap.
“This is what we were booked for,” said Thakur. “There was no water in our village. People were dying of thirst, children were dropping dead because of chamki bukhar, and we were just protesting for our rights.”
All of those named in the FIR found out about the case when police vehicles came to pick them up, a couple of days after it was registered.
“Daroga bola is case me kuchh nahi hoga. Ya to case kharij ho jayega ya bail ho jayega kuchh dino me (The policeman said nothing will happen in this case. The case will either be dropped or you all will get bail),” said Thakur.
Thakur and others accused the police of taking Rs 50,000 from all of them on the pretext of getting them bail, but those who did get bail had to pay up again.
“I have taken a loan of Rs 10,000 on 5% interest to fight the case,” said Sahni. “I have a broken back, I can’t work as a labourer, and I have to survive on the small amount I earn from my farm.”
(Shailesh Shrivastava is the Managing Editor of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)