Thirty-five deaths and still counting. That's the scenario in Batala, especially in the Gandhi Camp locality, where unhygienic civic conditions have led to the outbreak of gastroenteritis and panic among residents.
But the rising death toll has yet to set the alarm bells ringing among authorities, which are yet to provide cleaner conditions and adequate health staff in the affected areas.
The deaths started in Batala on September 29. Though by October 14, at least 21 deaths were reported, 14 deaths in the last four days have yet again raised a big question mark over the precautionary measures taken by the authorities concerned.
However, the health and administration officials are reluctant to accept that all the people that died in past four days have died due to gastroenteritis. But, till now, they certainly do not have other reasons to justify the rising death toll.
Even though a battery of health officials from the state government, a central team and even chief minister Parkash Singh Badal personally visited the Gandhi Camp locality about 10 days ago and assured people of taking all the preventive measures to control the epidemic, unfortunately, there has been no improvement in the situation till now.
So far, 21 families have received the compensation of Rs 1 lakh announced by the chief minister to the kin of the deceased.
As you move into the narrow streets of Gandhi Camp, where a population of about 20,000 lives, unhygienic conditions greet you. Filthy drains, contaminated water, heaps of garbage, potholed roads, choked sewer… the list is endless. Although the administration has started to supply water to the residents, it is not serving the purpose as the water pipes are full of dirt.
Moving further into the locality, one could hear cries and mourning of people on the loss of their loved ones. On Sunday itself, three persons, Ashok Kumar, Madan Gopal and Bal Kishen, died.
While residents look really worried about the continuous deaths in the locality, there is a great resentment for the government as well as the authorities concerned, which have failed to control the epidemic and provide them healthy living conditions over the years.
Other than poor civic conditions, residents of the area have an issue with the police as well, which, as per them, have failed to control the sale of drugs in the locality.
Karam Chand, who lost his son, Ashok Kumar, on Saturday late night, said, "My son died on Saturday after vomiting couple of times. We have been living here for years and the situation has turned worse from bad. What we could expect when we are not even getting clean water to drink. Nothing can change here."
Moving ahead, the dead body of Madan Gopal was lying on the floor of his house.
"I can't understand what more it will take for the authorities to step up the efforts. Deaths are becoming a regular affair. Although the health and district authorities are claiming of making efforts, the desired results are not there. Till now, no cleaning has been done in the area, " said an angry Manju, standing inside her house with two daughters, who lost her husband Ganesh on Saturday.
"I can't understand what happened. My husband started vomiting and his health deteriorated, leading to his death. He was the sole bread earner and now I see a bleak future ahead along with my three kids."
Sushma, a newly wed who also complained of gastroenteritis symptoms, said, "I have been sick for the past two days and I feel unhygienic conditions are responsible for it."
One could spot a dispensary being set up at the entry of the locality and a doctor and medical staff sitting there. Since October 6, about 683 patients have approached the medical staff with gastroenteritis complaints and about 450 have been diagnosed with the problem. Out of these 114 were referred to the hospital.
"People are dying here and we all are watching. The authorities have failed to even clean the area after so many deaths. This is not the only issue, drugs is also a problem. One can find toxic injections, capsules, illicit liquor. Police have failed on this front, alleged Chajju Ram, a local.
The resentment against authorities is brewing among residents to such an extent that they burst into sloganeering against the Punjab Police and the district administration, showing that authorities have to respond to the situation fast before the anger spills onto to the streets.
When contacted, Gurdaspur deputy commissioner Abhinav Trikha ruled out gastroenteritis being the prime reason for the deaths. "We have been getting reports from the doctors that people are dying due to various health issues. To verify things, I have formed a committee that will verify the exact cause of deaths," he said, adding, "Out of 35 deaths so far, 22 have been due to gastroenteritis. The reason behind the rest is being ascertained."
On being questioned about the pathetic conditions in the Gandhi camp locality, the deputy commissioner said, "The conditions are not at all pathetic. We have taken all the measures. At least 500 water supply connection pipelines have been changed, fogging machines have been placed, 17 water pumps have been chlorinated, chlorine tablets are being distributed and even potable water is being provided to the area. We have also deputed adequate health staff in the area."
Even Gurdaspur civil surgeon Dr Vinod Beri failed to give the exact reason for the deaths. "The next of kin of 21 people who died till a few days ago had already been compensated. Right now, we cannot say that the deaths in the past four days were due to gastroenteritis. A team is looking into the reasons and we will soon identify the exact cause," Dr Beri said.
Batala MLA Ashwani Sekhri minced no words in cricitising the government's response to the situation in Batala. "The conditions here are not fit for living. With so many deaths taking place, local bodies minister Bhagat Chunni Lal must resign on moral grounds. I have been raising my voice persistently," Sekhri said.
"Though Rs 3.5 core has been released by the government, due to the apathetic approach of the administration, the money is lying unused in the treasury. The district administration and municipal committee are responsible for the poor civic conditions in the locality," he added.
35 deaths reported since September 29
450 diagnosed with gastroenteritis in Gandhi camp
Gandhi Camp, Murgi Mohalla, Mohalla Sibal, Guru Nanak Nagar in grip of gastroenteritis
Filthy conditions, choked sewers, contaminated water in affected areas
Rs 1 lakh given as relief to each kin of deceased