Cramped in Assam’s relief camps, five lakh children wait for food, medicine

‘‘The biggest problem that we are beginning to face is the shortage of baby food, nutritious food and medicine for this huge population of children, a large chunk of whom are infants,’’ Assam Health Minister Bhumidhar Barman said today. Barman, also the chairman of the State Flood Relief Committee constituted by the state government, appealed today to international as well as national agencies to come to the aid of the state to tackle the situation.

Interestingly, the state relief manual, which was prepared about 30 years ago, does not specifically prescribe anything for children affected by floods due to which officials can’t take steps to tackle the new crisis.

While there was enough food stock for the adults, Barman said children were bearing the brunt of the damage left behind by the floods. Apart from the food shortage, little children in the 1,800-odd relief camps are already suffering from gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, dysentery and hepatitis.

‘‘There is also the danger of a vibrio cholera outbreak, given the fact that there is a massive shortage of safe drinking water,’’ Barman said, pointing out that a large number of drinking water sources were either inundated or damaged. To worsen matters, official records show that 35 per cent of Assam’s children have never been immunised despite a multitude of government programmes. The Assam government has so far received about six lakh packets of Oral Rehydration Salt (ORS) packets from the Centre but that is not enough given the impact of the floods. UNICEF and the Centre have also rushed about four lakh halozone (water purifying) tablets during the past two weeks, he said.

‘‘But this is just like a drop in the ocean with very few sources of safe drinking water left in the state,’’ Barman said. At least 60 government health centres have been damaged, partially or fully, due to the floods. In some districts, health centres are either underwater or have been buried in mud and debris. Though the Health Minister would not admit, there have been reports that hepatitis, dysentery, diarrhoea, para-typhoid and even malaria have broken out in several districts. A delegation of the Indian Red Cross Society which toured the state last week has assured supply of relief materials for about 10,000 families, while a Central Government team is in Assam to assess the state’s needs.

By SAMUDRA GUPTA KASHYAP on Indian Express, New Delhi (July 27, 2004)