Two more children died in the drought-hit district of Tharparkar on Saturday as provincial ministers, who visited the district, joined a chorus of denial that malnutrition was not the cause of the 124 deaths reported since December.
One of the victims was identified as 3-year-old Amin Rahimo from Islamkot taluka while the other was an 8-year-old girl from Diplo taluka.
Meanwhile, 20 more children were admitted to Islamkot’s rural health centre, while eight others were brought to Civil Hospital, Mithi. According to Dr Aneel Kumar, who is one of the two pediatricians at the hospital’s Malnutrition Stabilisation Centre, between 10 and 15 children are brought to the hospital daily.
According to the reports obtained from the health directorate, some 67 children and infants have died at the civil hospital since December.
Twenty-five of these deaths were caused by sepsis, a blood infection, 14 died of pneumonia, 10 due to premature births and eight by asphyxia. The three-month record does not mention any death due to food deficiency.
However, Noor Mohammad Bajeer, a healthcare activist, denied these claims. Speaking at a conference organised by Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) on Saturday, he explained that all the children who have died had blood deficiencies, which is a result of malnourishment. When the doctors write down the cause of death, they only mention the disease they contracted due to the deficiency, he said.
Nevertheless, ministers and officials insisted otherwise. “It will be wrong to say that all the deaths were caused by food deficiency and a shortage of wheat,” Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon told the media in Mithi. Separately, Sindh Minister for Women Development Rubina Qaimkhani reiterated the same stance. “Most of the children have died because of pneumonia. They were affected by the cold weather.”
Only one death has occurred due to malnutrition in this month, claimed Dr Ashfaq Memon, the director-general of health who was removed from his post on Saturday. According to him, only four underfed children have reported to the Mithi’s hospital in March, while there were no such cases in the past months. Another official of the directorate, who sought anonymity, blamed non-governmental organisations for blowing up the issue to seek funding.
In contrast, local residents and members of civil society argue that the actual mortality rate is much higher. “This figure of 124 deaths is reported only from the semi-urban towns and their surrounding villages. We don’t know what has happened to other thousands of villages that are spread across the 20,000 sq km desert,” said Sparc’s Kashif Bajeer.
Inquiry committee formed
Information Minister Sharjeel Memon announced that an inquiry committee led by DIG Hyderabad Sanaullah Abbassi has been formed to probe the child deaths. “The committee will fix the responsibility. If the officials are found responsible for the situation, the government will take action against them,” he said.
Pakistan Peoples Party’s Senator Aajiz Dhamrah said the chief minister has convened a meeting on Sunday in Mithi to discuss the crisis. The CM has also announced a sum of Rs450 million to be spent on the relief operation.
Meanwhile, the General Officer Commanding of Hyderabad garrison Maj Gen Inamul Haq also visited Civil Hospital, Mithi. “The Pakistan Army will not disappoint the Thari people. Our medical teams will remain here until the situation improves.” The army has also set up relief camps, which provide rations and other goods to the people.
No relief camps have been set up in villages and towns except in Mithi – the district headquarters of the desert district. The villagers have not seen any officials for immediate help to the needy families affected by the drought. The situation in Diplo, the worst affected taluka, is deplorable where people refused to take money, insisting on only food and drinking water.
The only relief camp was seen at Thar Rangers Welfare High School, which was established by paramilitary forces. Hundreds of families rushed at the gate where only 200 families were given ration, while others left without even a single bottle of water.
Waiting in the scorching heat along with her 13-month-old son, Chando Kolhi said that they were waiting for a packet of ration since morning. “Neither do they understand our language nor could we describe our misery to these officials. Could you help me to get one packet? My child is crying due to thirst.”
The people of Diplo city informed The Express Tribune that only 10 bags of wheat were provided on Friday by Assistant Commissioner Khursheed Alam. “Do you think only wheat would be sufficient for our children and women?” a man, Arjun, sitting outside a shop questioned.
As the Sindh chief minister took measures to punish negligence of officials and ministers regarding Thar’s tragedy, the blame game began in earnest. “No one can blame us. The finance department should be held responsible for this tragedy because it did not release Rs 100 million despite our repeated requests,” said Makhdoom Jamiluz Zaman, the minister for relief.
On the other hand, Sindh’s services general administration and coordination department, on the directives of the chief minister, issued a notification about transfers and postings of officials belonging to Tharparkar district.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2014.