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Bridge over the river Kosi

Why would the world’s richest man want to come here, to the poorest villages in Bihar? These people are junglee (uncivilised), they eat rats and live in mud huts. If I had money, I would go anywhere but here,” says constable Raghubir Yadav.

india Updated: May 15, 2010 21:59 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Why would the world’s richest man want to come here, to the poorest villages in Bihar? These people are junglee (uncivilised), they eat rats and live in mud huts. If I had money, I would go anywhere but here,” says constable Raghubir Yadav, as he chases two stray dogs that had wandered into a harvested cornfield-turned-makeshift helipad where a chopper is expected in 10 minutes.

The visitor is Bill Gates, 54, Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Technically the world’s second richest after Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu (worth US $53.5 billion), he still has enough money and imagination for far more exciting things than spending a summer afternoon in the heat and dust of Guleria, a village in the Kosi river-belt of the Khagaria district of Bihar.

Guleria is a village inhabited by the “maha-Dalit” musahars (rat-eaters), the lowest sub-caste among dalits. And yes, they still eat rats, Ashiq Sada, a daily-labourer, who has a family of five — all of whom work as migrant labourers in Punjab — told the stranger.

“But only as a delicacy, not because they are starving,” says Bihar health secretary CK Mishra quickly, who’s touring the village with the VIP.

Like Sada, though most of Guleria is clueless about the identity of the mysterious visitor, yet life comes to a standstill. And it’s not because of security -- Gates has less security than an average Indian MLA — but because everyone turns up to gawk at the man who bought a chopper and high-ranking government officials to the village for the first time.

Hiralal, 70, says he has never seen a district magistrate or such police bandobast before. “No one comes here except those who give polio drops,” says Hiralal, who chooses to admire the helicopter rather than tend his buffaloes.

The students from Patna who are at home on vacation are disappointed. “He doesn’t look rich, his clothes are dusty. He doesn’t have a gold chain or a watch,” says one. “Why is he drinking water?” asks another, musing on the plain ways of the rich.

Oblivious to the speculation, Gates is on a fact-finding tour on why the Kosi river belt is the last bastion of the wild poliovirus in India. “It’s very critical that we finish polio, in Bihar in particular. The Kosi belt has been a challenge and I can now see why,” says Gates, who crosses the river by the local village boat before hoofing it to the village 400 metres away.

The nearest primary health centre is across two rivers, the Kosi and the Siswa. A dozen major tributaries make the Kosi basin — is one of the largest in the world — 180 km long and 150 km across, much of which gets submerged during the monsoons, forcing villagers to abandon homes. That’s why vaccines such as polio are now being brought to their doorstep.

“There’s been an impressive increased coverage because of additions such as maps to track shifting population, offering 10 rounds of vaccinations a year, and introducing the bivalent vaccine to protect children against both existing polioviruses, 1 and 3,” says Gates.

“In India, 2008-2009 saw a resurgence in polio, but this year, the numbers are very low. If cases are kept low this year, there is good reason to think there will be zero cases in two to three years,” says Gates.

India reported 20 polio cases till May 11, as compared to 40 in the same period in 2009. Bihar’s contribution to the polio tally is six this year.

But with extensive data available with tracking agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, was the visit necessary? Yes, says Gates. “Now when I go to polio fundraisers in Washington and New York, I should be able to tell people, I have been there, we’ve been working there and are smarter today than we were yesterday. Raising visibility gives the campaign a good chance of success,” says Gates.

The biggest recipient of BMGF grants, India gets approximately $1 billion from the foundation. Gates believes that vaccines such as polio save more lives than doctors. He says, “When it comes to saving lives, nothing comes closer to vaccines.”

First Published: May 15, 2010 21:54 IST