Wed, Aug 25, 2004 - Page 15 News List

India's rural population is sick of being poor

Health care fails to keep pace with development in India, where a faith healer is sometimes the only option

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Whenever Lalibati, a poor farmer's wife in western India, falls sick, she heads for only one person: the local faith healer.

"The Bhopaji waves a peacock feather fan on my head, gives me a little packet with some ash and that cures me," the middle-aged woman giggled, as she sat on the floor of a mud hut with the end of her bright red sari clenched between her teeth.

"It's a question of faith."

Lalibati is one of millions of rural Indians who are forced to turn to faith healers and quacks, sometimes with deadly consequences, because of the abysmal quality of healthcare centers in the countryside.

While India's urban healthcare industry has boomed recently with a host of private hospitals offering state-of-the-art services for the cash-rich middle class, rural India remains untouched by the change.

It depends on an extensive network of government-run primary health centers -- one for every 30,000 people -- but experts say most of them are dogged by rampant absenteeism among doctors, lack of adequate medicines and poor infrastructure.

"We actually have the best primary health care infrastructure in the world. But it's like a sick public sector unit," said Sunil Mehra, a doctor and health policy expert in Delhi.

"We want to do everything for globalization, but not for investment in health."

A survey by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University of 100 villages in the poverty-stricken desert state of Rajasthan showed that 45 percent of medical personnel are absent at village level centers.

QUACKS AND SHAMANS

That isn't all: many centers in the state of stunning lakes and palaces are housed in dilapidated buildings with rusty stretchers.

It is this problem the new left-backed Congress government, which has promised to usher in reforms with a "human face," hopes to address with its plans to increase health spending to between 2 percent and 3 percent of GDP from less than 1 percent.

So far, the government has not indicated how the fresh funds will be spent, but a health ministry spokesperson said the emphasis would be on enhancing public-private partnership in an effort to improve delivery.

Until then, rural Indians are still trapped in a growing spiral of disease: while the nation tries to grapple with newer problems like AIDS, older ailments like polio and tuberculosis refuse to go away.

India has 5.1 million people suffering from AIDS, the second highest in the world after South Africa, with an increasing number of victims now in rural areas. But public healthcare centers are ill-equipped to deal with the disease, which now is spreading with frightening speed to the country's children.

Even the polio virus, almost eliminated worldwide, still exists in certain pockets, such as the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where people have shunned the vaccine because of rumors it is part of a conspiracy to limit the birth rate of Muslims.

As a result, millions of Indians fork out a small fortune to faith healers, shamans and quacks who thrive across the countryside: in one recent case, a quack cut off a young girl's tongue in Delhi to cure her stutter.

"Many of them are not real doctors but apprentices with little knowledge. All they do is give injections with distilled water," said Sanjana Mohan, a doctor working with Seva Mandir, a non-governmental organization in the western city of Udaipur.

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