The 16-month-old baby must have had shrieked in pain when a local healer pressed a red-hot iron on his stomach 20 times.
But such howls normally fall on deaf ears in Odisha’s impoverished interior districts, where traditional practices continue to hold sway despite complaints that they’re outdated and cruel.
The infant’s grandmother wanted to cure him of a nagging bowel disorder but the child is now battling for his life in the Nabrangpur district hospital.
He is one of at least 40 babies who have been branded in a similar fashion in the past six months. 20 of them have been reported from south Odisha’s Nabrangpur district alone.
For decades, a governmental hands-off policy and crumbling public health infrastructure ensured traditional healers thrived in a state where tribals make up almost a quarter of the population.
But now, a clutch of botched cures and brandings have killed five children in the past six months, triggering outrage against quacks and witch doctors who many say are blinded by long-held faith.
“For a tribal, culture and social traditions are more important than modern medicine. It will not be easy to drive out superstition,” said KK Basa, an anthropologist with the Utkal University in Bhubaneswar.
The local media reports fresh cases of branding every week, compelling authorities to make noises about banning the practice, but nothing appears to move.
The local practitioners of branding have a free run in the meantime, sources say.
Last Wednesday, a 13-day-old child was admitted to the VSS Medical College and Hospital in Sambalpur in a critical condition after being seared with a hot iron in Boudh. He was branded at least 30 times.
The list of such unfortunate events is long and mounting. In April, a boy in Rourkela was branded for a so-called treatment of pneumonia.
In March, a four-year-old boy died in Malkangiri after he was branded for curing him of an inexplicable fever.
Last month, a boy in Keonjhar was branded as his mother sought treatment for his ill-health.
The practice isn’t limited to infants only. Last December, a pregnant woman in Malkangiri was branded after she complained of abdominal pains. The healer even put bricks on her stomach, worsening her condition.
Experts say the state’s poor health infrastructure and alarming infant mortality rate -- 51 against the national average of 40 – helps traditional healers, who far outnumber registered doctors in large parts of the state.
The authorities recently announced their resolve to arrest those involved but local residents say the battle to curb branding is far from being won.
“In many districts, the branding of babies is seen as a process of making them stronger to face the hardships of life.” says PC Mohapatra, the director of Koraput-based Council of Analytical and Tribal Studies.
“It’s a harsh reality, no matter how hard one finds it to swallow.”