Sumer, a round-faced 8-month-old boy from Bhagwanpura village in Bhilwara, has a neat puncture in skin between his chest and abdomen. It looks as if a burning cigarette was stubbed in the baby’s skin.
The boy was singed with a hot iron rod earlier this month by a local healer or Baba to ‘treat’ him for pneumonia — a disease defined as an acute respiratory infection affecting the lungs by the WHO.
The practice, known as ‘raakha’ or ‘daagna’, is rampant in many villages of Bhilwara and neighbouring districts. Almost everybody in those villages, from kids to men in their twilight, lifted their shirts to reveal marks of burn on their abdomen.
Sumer’s family belongs to nomadic Banjara community, which comes under backward classes and engages primarily in livestock rearing.
His father Bahadur Banjara, a driver, was not at home and his mother Sita Devi was crying over the boy’s worsening health when the Baba came asking for alms.
The Baba offered to cure the child and took Rs 650 for the ‘treatment’. Fearing that she might lose the child, the woman rushed to a nearby dispensary from where the boy was referred to the district hospital, where he underwent treatment for a week.
“The boy was born to us after four girls. Why would I cause any harm to it?” says Devi as the incident became a police case after the doctor at the district hospital approached police.
Ummed Singh, the acting SHO of Paroli police station said it was unlikely that the woman did it with an intention to cause harm. Devi’s remarks also exude lingering preference for boys among people in the state. The state’s sex ratio (928) is still among the worst in the country.
WHO recommends treatment of pneumonia by antibiotics and recognises the disease as the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide.
India alone saw 175,000 child deaths because of pneumonia in 2013, according to a report published by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last year.
The village folks believe that putting a hot object at a specific place on the body opens up the clogged veins and arteries and provides relief.
The objects used for ‘raakha’ vary from iron rods to pieces of baked clay to burnt cotton cloth. But irrespective of the object used, the faith that people have in the method’s ability to cure is tremendous.
Although the children are subjected to this treatment more, adults also opt for it willingly.
People also resort to it when they suffer from liver pain. Mostly, there are ‘experts’ in the village who do it but often elders of the family do it themselves. At times, they make a cross on the stomach with a heated knitting needle.
Some people, however, said prevalence of the practice has gone down in recent years. “We used to get it done earlier, but now we go to doctors and take medicines,” says Shankar from Bhagwanpura.
In another village Mor Ka Nimbara, a picturesque place, a child became victim of the practice last month. Sunder, a 3-year-old girl was ‘treated’ by her grandmother for pneumonia. The family belongs to Kalbelia community, a nomadic tribe which now comes under scheduled classes.
The girl’s chest bears three circular marks of burn on ‘strategic’ places which make an inverted triangle on the body’s front. “You put a burnt cotton cloth at the chest, and then make the child drink egg of a desi hen or something that produces heat in the body, and it gets alright,” says the girl’s aunt.
But in Sunder’s case, it did not work and they had to take her to the district hospital.
The police have lodged a case against the girl’s grandmother under the Juvenile Justice Act and are awaiting a medical report for action, says Satish Kumar Meena, the SHO of Asind police station.
The girl’s grandmother, Pani Bai, said the girl was her prodigy and who would do anything wrong to a kid of their own family.
“I did not use an iron rod, I only used a cotton cloth. The doctor at the district hospital reported it wrongly and gave it to local newspapers. This is our way of treating the sick and we have been using it since ages,” Bai said while showing her own wrinkled stomach which bore faint marks of the burn.
A villager, who does not wish to be named, says what the girl’s grandmother did was right. “The child would have died had they not done it. This is our traditional way of curing. It’s just that the government doesn’t believe in our way,” he says.
The district hospital has received four such cases in as many weeks. “In the peak season of pneumonia, we receive 4-5 such cases a month. And these are only the extreme cases that come to this hospital. There are a large number that go to private hospitals or do not reach any hospital at all and are therefore going unreported,” says Dr OP Agal, pediatrician at the Mahatma Gandhi Government Hospital - the district hospital in Bhilwara.
Agal says he has started reporting the cases to police since the past couple of years. “The child is already suffering from a disease and singeing only aggravates the problem. In addition, it carries the risk of tetanus and septicemia,” Agal said.
A nurse at the hospital says people don’t bring such cases to the hospital now fearing police action. “Some even tell wrong names and addresses,” she said.
District collector Tina Kumar said the practice was rooted deep in superstition and the district administration tries to dispel them through health awareness camps in villages.