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29 February, 2008

Study on tuberculosis infection in Lohta village of Varanasi begins tomorrow

Seven weeks ago I had drawn attention to the Asian Human Rights Commission’s appeal seeking the services of Indian doctors to work among tuberculosis patients in Lohta village of Varanasi district. AHRC has announced that the TB programme in the village will begin on March 1. Below is the AHRC press release on the subject.

Lohta village of Varanasi district in Uttar Pradesh state of India is infamous for malnutrition, deaths from starvation and alarmingly widespread tuberculosis infection. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in the recent past has been reporting cases of malnutrition and tuberculosis infection from Lohta. All these cases have been brought to the attention of the state as well as central government authorities in India. Unfortunately the Indian authorities have thus far neglected the residents of Lohta and their cry for help.

On 18 December 2007, a public hearing was organized in Varanasi. The hearing was organised to provide a platform for the ordinary citizens in and around Varanasi to address their concerns relating to right to food, health and decent living. These rights are fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, but neglected by the state as well as central governments in India. The hearing was co-organised by the AHRC along with its local partner the People's vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), Action Aid International -- India and the Bunkar Dastakar Adhikar Manch.

Those who deposed before the experts' panel in the hearing revealed pathetic stories of their struggle for survival. A multitude of reasons for appalling living conditions were explained by the people who participated in the hearing. Of particular importance was the lack of consistent income resulting in abject poverty; complete absence of a reasonably good government sponsored health service system in Lohta and widespread corruption in the public food distribution system that results in starvation and malnutrition. The hearing also brought to light the fact that there is a large number of persons suffering from tuberculosis living in Lohta.
Poor living conditions and prolonged periods of malnutrition increases the vulnerability of the people living in Lohta to be infected with tuberculosis. The AHRC and the PVCHR immediately appealed to the state government authorities requesting the state government to take immediate actions; first to identify the persons suffering from tuberculosis and then to provide adequate treatment -- not only to the patients but also to their immediate relatives who live with the patients so that the tuberculosis infection would not spread out of control.

An open letter calling for immediate intervention signed by 208 persons, were sent to the Indian authorities. The authorities failed to respond. The AHRC then called for applications from medical doctors who were willing to assist the AHRC and the PVCHR in identifying the persons infected by tuberculosis in Lohta. From the list of highly qualified doctors who expressed their willingness to serve for the common cause and the human rights of the people in Lohta, the AHRC and the PVCHR has contracted a medical doctor to conduct a detailed study of tuberculosis infection in Lohta village.

The study will commence from 1 March 2008 and will last for six months. The residents of Lohta will be encouraged to approach the medical doctor and get examined and diagnose whether they are infected with tuberculosis. The AHRC and the PVCHR will also try to provide treatment to the patients. The information gathered from the study will be used by the AHRC and the PVCHR to further lobby the Indian authorities to continue the work which the AHRC and the PVCHR has initiated in Lohta.

Human rights organizations cannot replace governments. Neither is forming a parallel government the role of any human rights group. Through the experience gained from human rights work, the AHRC and the PVCHR is convinced that unless something is done immediately to control tuberculosis in Lohta many more people might die in that village. The infection might also spread uncontrollably.

All human rights issues have a unique character. It is only the poor and the marginalized who would often fall prey to human rights abuses. Right to health is not an exception. For the past several years the poor in Lohta did not have a doctor to consult regarding their health. They are systematically denied the benefits of the government sponsored public food distribution system. Neglect is nothing new for a civilization with its roots in the caste system. While this discrimination continues the state as well as the central government is claiming false results. The statement advertised by the Government of India's Ministry of Health is just one example. The Ministry claims hundred percent coverage of the anti-tuberculosis campaign in the country.

The attempt by the AHRC and the PVCHR is not to expand its field of human rights activities to health sector or to gather some statistical information. This study about tuberculosis infection in Lohta is the result of the PVCHR's and the AHRC's understanding that without ensuring the basic guarantees to human life, any attempt to address human rights issues in India will be an empty rhetoric.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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