Odisha’s ‘rich’ Keonjhar poor in child health

The district has a high share of the country’s iron ore reserves and is rich in funds earmarked for welfare needs, but women and young children struggle to access basic facilities

The district has a high share of the country’s iron ore reserves and is rich in funds earmarked for welfare needs, but women and young children struggle to access basic facilities

There are very few districts in India that can match the financial strength of Keonjhar in Odisha. Still, the district suffers from the shame of having the highest number of crippled, underweight children and anemic pregnant women of the state’s 30 districts.

After losing two sons shortly after birth in 2020 and 2021 shortly after birth, Sisira Dehury, 29, was determined to save her third child this year.

She took a 20km auto-rickshaw ride from the remote Emiri village under the Bansapal block of Keonjhar and spent two months in a maa gruha – a waiting-at-home maternity home – before her confinement.

However, all her efforts to save the child proved in vain when her five-day-old child died on September 18 at the District Headquarters Hospital’s Special Newborn Unit (SNCU) in Keonjhar. Ms Dehury said: “I couldn’t hush my son before he closes his eyes.”

Likewise, the hospital’s doctors could not save Jayanti Chatamba’s three-day-old child, who was transferred there from a private nursing home. Authorities said the child died on September 17 from sepsis and related complications.

Four newborns recently died in 48 hours at SNCU. Parents are said to have lost 13 newborn babies at the district headquarters hospital between September 1 and September 18. The findings of an investigation conducted by the Chief District Medical Officer (CDMO) said: “Considering individual case findings, the babies were determined to be critically ill. All the necessary treatments available in the hospitals have been provided to save their lives. There was no evidence of negligence in the treatment process and the babies’ deaths were a result of the disease process and its complications.” The CDMO has now been transferred.

But the parents have refused to accept the findings of the investigation, instead claiming that there are not enough doctors to care for the babies at the hospital.

At the Bansapal community health center, six women were waiting to give birth in Maa Gruha. They had preferred this option to waiting at home, as ambulances could not reach them in their villages in an emergency.

So far this month, 128 children have been born at the community health center. Except for two or three cases, most babies weighed about 2.5 kg at birth; some weighed only 2 kg. The World Health Organization defines a low birth weight as a birth weight of less than 2.5 kg.

The irony is that Keonjhar district is financially healthy. Apart from the regular government welfare funds, it has a separate fund of 15,000 crore in its treasury.

But it compares poorly to other counties in the state when it comes to health indexes. Out of a total of 13.48,000 families with stunted, emaciated or underweight children and anemic 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, compared to the national average of 20.8%. Similarly, 74.7% of pregnant women in Keonjhar were reported as anemic, compared to the national average of 61.8%.

Mohan Majhi, Keonjhar MLA and BJP Chief Whip in the Assembly, said: “According to the Odisha government, there are 5,525 villages in the state that are not easily accessible. Keonjhar has such 141 villages. Keonjhar accounts for 26% of the country’s iron ore reserves and has ₹8,583 crore with the District Mineral Foundation. The corrupt administrations at the district and state levels are chasing misguided priorities while Keonjhar’s children are malnourished and victims of disease.”

Keonjhar has nearly £7,000 million under the Odisha Mineral Bearing Areas Development Corporation (OMBADC) for the welfare of communities affected by mining activities.

“It is ironic that the poorest in society are suffering in wealthy Keonjhar district. Although Keonjhar has made a huge contribution to the treasury, poor families, especially tribesmen, have suffered without access to basic amenities. We should be ashamed of losing our children while sitting on mountains of money,” reprimanded Himanshu Kumar, secretary of the Keonjhar Civic Forum.

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