Rama Shankar was a 50-year-old carpet weaver from Mahamalpur Pipariya Village in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh. His monthly income was a meagre Rs1500. He had 4 daughters and a son. His wife Umavati did odd jobs in the village to support the family. They lived in a mud house, cooked on dry wood collected from the nearby forest and did not have an enclosed latrine in their house.
One day in Sept 2013, Rama Shankar went out in the wee hours to answer nature’s call in the nearby fields. He accidentally stepped on the tail of a Cobra that hooded up and bit him just above his left knee. Rama Shankar rushed back home and informed his family about the incident.
The impoverished family, which led a hand to mouth existence, had no money for treatment. Rama Shankar was nevertheless taken to the village faith healer who gave him a herbal concoction and bathed him with copious amounts of water. Rama Shankar’s condition seemed to get worse and the family brought him back as they had no more money for treatment.
In the next few days, Rama Shankar’s condition deteriorated even further. A local leader of the village shared that Rama Shankar’s condition was suggestive of profound brain damage and pneumonia. He died on the night of the 10th day of the bite. The family didn’t have enough money even for his funeral and their neighbors helped by contributing money so that Rama Shankar’s body could be cremated.
After Rama Shankar’s death, the condition of his family further worsened. Today, Umavati struggles to feed and clothe her family. Two of her daughters are of marriageable age. None of her children go to school. The youngest daughter, seen in the picture along with Umavati, has attended primary school but does not know to read and write.
Snakebite is a treatable condition and as per the provisions in our constitution – Right to Life (Article 21) and Right to Avail Basic Health Care (Article 41)- Rama Shankar should have been provided free treatment and survived. The truth, however, is that such provisions are present in letter only with gross misuse in implementation at the ground level. Since most victims of snake bite are from the poorer sections of society hundreds of deaths due to snakebite go unchallenged and unreported every year.
Rama Shankar’s death has not been recorded as the family didn’t go to a hospital nor did they inform the local police station. This is common in rural India where hundreds of victims from impoverished backgrounds do not report to the hospital for treatment. A large part of the rural population has faith in dogmas and faith healing. This, coupled with high cost of snakebite treatment at hospitals, ensures that the victim’s family continues to depend on faith healers and traditional methods.
There is no method of correctly determining the exact number of unreported deaths due to snakebites in rural India. The data regarding the death of Rama Shankar, and of thousands of his rural brethren across India, are lost forever. Snakebite affects mostly the poorer sections of society and hence does not get priority in the health policies of almost all Indian states. Lack of data regarding deaths & morbidity related to snakebites has made it easy for the government to sweep any concern under the carpet citing not enough deaths to treat this challenge with urgency.
The effect of losing a member due to snakebite on a family living below the poverty line is crushing. The family has to invariably take a loan from the local money lender and then has no option but to enter into bonded labour in order to pay off the debt. Many children are orphaned and left to fend for themselves as relatives do not want to take the responsibility of bringing them up. Also, most states do not have any compensation plan for snakebite deaths. Considering our very high population and the healthy distribution of venomous snakes across India, these deaths due to snakebite are a cause of grave concern. Citizens living below the poverty line have a right to life too.
Snakebite Healing and Education Society, through its endeavor intends to document stories of such cases from across India to demonstrate the severity of the situation and the need to look at this issue afresh.
Written by Priyanka Kadam