In Stories

The unrecorded death of Rama Shankar (Story from UP)

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.

Umarvati & her daugher

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

11 Comments

  • T.R. Raghunandan
    Feb 14, 2016 at 06:29 pm

    Thanks for this article. It is thought provoking. The fact that many snake bite cases go un-reported because of poverty and superstition, is a scary thought. You are doing commendable work.

    • admin
      Feb 15, 2016 at 07:57 pm

      Raghu Sir – Thanks for taking a keen interest in the snakebite mitigation cause.

  • Rom Whitaker
    Feb 15, 2016 at 02:52 am

    Excellent Priyanka and thanks for your energy. I’m ccing this to Shonali with the intention of encouraging more of the snake people around the country to give inputs so that we have a more country-wide perception of the problems and perhaps some answers on how to deal with snakebite in the different scenarios we encounter. Cheers, Rom

    • admin
      Feb 15, 2016 at 07:55 pm

      Thanks for your encouragement Rom. You may want to note that while there is Russells viper distribution in the state of UP, in the districts of Mirzapur and Varanasi, the feedback from local population is that there are no Russells. None of the villagers recognized the Russell’s pic. The two commonly venomous snakes found in this part are Sp Cobra and Common Krait.

  • Vishal Santra
    Feb 15, 2016 at 07:41 am

    Hi Priyanka,

    This is almost the story of every second village across India. West Bengal is full with Rama Shankars. This is one effective way and reason why the Union Minister of health can report 1400 snakebite deaths in India in 2012. Sad!
    But again this tells us that the story we have been narrating to people and concerned departments is not a lie… That more than a lac people die in our country due to snakebite is true to the core…
    You have been doing a commendable job I should say. It doest not need me to say that echoing many as I have known you for quite sometime now. But this can be a instrumental way to bring in the concern of the authorities to declare SNAKEBITE as a MAJOR PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM.
    I wish you wind under your wings for the next endeavour… 🙂
    Cheers!

    • Priyanka Kadam
      Feb 15, 2016 at 07:44 pm

      Vishal – Many thanks for your inputs. We are a team 🙂

  • Jaideep Menon
    Feb 15, 2016 at 03:51 pm

    Strange that Rama Shankar died 10 days after a cobra bite. One would have expected clinical improvement / deterioration within the first 1-3 days typically.

    • admin
      Feb 15, 2016 at 07:50 pm

      Dr Jaideep – Have heard of viper cases wherein victims died after a week or so. But a victim surviving for so long after a wet bite of a Cobra is a first for me too.

  • Omesh Bharti
    Feb 16, 2016 at 04:18 pm

    Good work but need more such stories, may be involving people through whatsapp to inform about snakebite or snakebite death.

  • Dr Dayal Bandhu Majumdar
    Feb 16, 2016 at 04:56 pm

    There is no scope of any ” Debate” that, Snakebite is a Neglected disease . And the fore most reason is Under Reporting. In 2009, there was a huge cry on ” Epidemic of Bird Flue” in India , particularly in WB. Later on it was revealed that, not a single person died due to this ” Pharma Company made Cry”! Crores of birds ( Ducks and Chicken) were killed, crores of rupees were given to the farmers as compensation. Hundred of crores were spent to import medicines. All these were possible as the lay news papers created a tremendous propaganda.
    On the other hand , on the same year, more than 300 snakebite deaths were officially reported in WB only. Now all of us know that, the actual figure was about 8-10 fold higher ( See our publication in the IJPH , March, 2014, Majumder , Abhik Sinja et al). Nobody bothered.
    But now , in WB , the scenario is totally changed. All the Rural Health facilities ( where Doctors stay at night) are supplied with free for all ASV. This was possible only due to constant hammering . Only two Bengali daily news papers , the Bartaman and the Sambad Pratidin had supported our movement.
    There is a very popular Bengali folk lore , ” Even a mother does not breast feed her baby without a cry”!

  • Nakul Jana
    Oct 28, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    This is the ground reality in most of the snake victims fate. Now snake bite is included in the list of national calamity with good amount of compensation available to the victims family which is followed by most of the states in India. But the tragedy is that the compensation hardly reached the target as in the case of Rama Shankar family. Policy is not enough if it is not implemented and it becomes a useless document only. We should make mass movement and approach the Govt to develop a mechanism to implement the assistance available to the victims family on death and injury. Compensation can help the victims family survive and avoid the huge difficulty to survive as sited in the case above.

    Here we should follow the advice of Dr D B Majumder-” Even a mother does not breast feed her baby without a cry”!

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