As a researcher for Time-Life Books in Delhi in the 1980s, I was asked to check out whether it was true that more people died of snake bite in heavy monsoon rains in rural India than in house collapses, flooding, and other rain-induced accidents and diseases. I spent days at the Nehru Memorial Library, poring over data of monsoon deaths going back decades and found that snake bit accounted for barely a fraction of monsoon fatalities even in remote areas.
When I reported this back to New York, my editors — like all Americans, famously great fact-checkers – were mightily pleased to be saved the blushes.
I was reminded of that episode when I saw the headline, “Diseases, not Maoists, kill most CRPF men in Red zone”, (The Times of India, 11 March). Another Time-Life style urban myth, I said to myself.
But then, to my horror, I discovered that this stuff was straight from the horse’s mouth – the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. It was official. And there were hard statistics to go with it. The “worrying” bit, it said, was that the number of deaths caused due to medical negligence was steadily growing compared to the fatalities inflicted by armed rebels.
Before we go any further, here’s a flavour of the MHA findings.
“For the largest security force fighting Naxalites in dense jungles of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar, the biggest enemy is not a gun-toting rebel, but a mosquito. Latest government data shows that more CRPF men have died due to malaria and heart attack than have fallen to Maoist attacks in the 106 Naxal-affected districts in the country,” said the TOI report.
If I were a Maoist, I would feel terribly diminished and demoralised that my state “enemies” were more frightened of mosquitoes than my deadly arsenal of bows and arrows.
The report sheds light on a serious issue: The shocking conditions that the jawans risking their lives in a dangerous mission are forced to endure. Medical facilities, which should be a priority, are said to be so primitive as to be non-existent. There are no qualified doctors, with constables trained in rudimentary first aid doubling up as medics in emergency. Let alone facilities for blood tests and x-rays, even routine medicines are not available at the best of times.
This is what a CRPF officer, who recently served in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, is reported as saying: “At camps in the jungles, there are just a few constables trained in first aid and armed with malaria detection kit. Several times they fail to diagnose correctly as strains such as falciparum malaria do not always come with high fever. By the time the personnel falls seriously sick, it is too late as evacuation from the camp alone takes about two days.”
A lack of timely medical help means that even easily curable ailments often prove fatal; and a heart attack — even a mild one – means certain death. The cause of such frequent heart conditions is attributed to stress levels the soldiers suffer from while fighting a guerrilla war in an inhospitable terrain; and the long hours they are required to put in because of “less number of personnel.”
“Since there are less number of personnel and huge areas to patrol, jawans are under pressure not to seek leave or rest day for minor reasons. Thus, a mild fever or body ache – early symptoms of malaria – are not even reported,” according to one officer.
I’m surprised that such little notice has been taken of a report (whoever leaked it to TOI deserves to be complimented) which would shame any self-respecting government. Manmohan Singh, when he was prime minister, described the Maoist movement as “the single biggest threat to internal security”.
And what a way to fight such a serious threat.
Sending ill-equipped, overstretched and overstressed jawans into conflict zones that, in some ways, are even more dangerous than conventional theatres of war suggests only two conclusions. Either the government doesn’t take the threat as seriously as it claims to. Or it regards CRPF jawans as nothing more than cheap cannon fodder to be fed to Maoist guerrillas.
Even the bumbling Dad’s Army of the fictional BBC drama was better equipped and its amateur “soldiers” were treated by their handlers with greater dignity compared to the Indian government’s callous treatment of one the country’s most professional and courageous para-military fighters.
The total disregard for their safety and security revealed in the report is a scandal reminiscent of how Krishna Menon condemned hundreds of soldiers to certain death when he sent pathetically ill-equipped troops to take on the Chinese in 1962. The least that these CRPF boys engaged in a life-and-death conflict deserve is basic medical care, if they happen to fall sick.
But forget medical facilities, it has been reported that camps in the dreaded “Naxalite-infested” areas don’t have even proper toilet facilities, and soldiers have to go into the woods to relieve themselves where they have been attacked by insurgents, according to the Daily Mail.
Apparently, the CRPF top brass has been complaining to the Home Ministry for long, finally forcing the Director of Intelligence Bureau, Dineshwar Sharma, to flag it up as a serious issue describing the situation as “sickening”. This happened after he was bombarded with complaints during a recent visit to a Chhattisgarh “Red Zone”. On his return, Sharma wrote to the Home Ministry expressing concern about “deplorable living conditions” there, and pointing out that “local authorities weren’t offering any co-operation to the CRPF in constructing proper toilets.”
There’s an old saw that the army doesn’t march on an empty stomach. Well, we don’t know about CRPF jawans’ rations, though it would be worth investigating whether they get enough wholesome diet to sustain them in the difficult conditions in which they are deployed. But meanwhile, how about ensuring that they have proper living quarters, get basic medical care, and — yes – toilets to go to like other civilised people?
Is that too much to ask for in return for fighting the “single biggest threat to internal security”?