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Hot rod horror brands children in Jharkhand

A collapsing health system in Jharkhand allows a deadly fix for protruding bellies. Children with distended bellies, characteristic of malnutrition and disease, routinely have red-hot iron rods plunged into their sides by superstitious, poverty-stricken tribal parents in the belief it will cure all stomach ailments. Vijay Murty reports.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2010 19:52 IST
Vijay Murty
Vijay Murty
Hindustan Times

A barbaric method of maiming and inadvertently killing hungry children in tribal India shows how the nation is failing its poorest and furthering the Maoist rebellion.

Children with distended bellies, characteristic of malnutrition and disease, routinely have red-hot iron rods plunged into their sides by superstitious, poverty-stricken tribal parents in the belief it will cure all stomach ailments.
Children of Mirgitand village in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district shows their scars. They were the lucky ones who survived. Arvind Kumar Sharma / HT PHOTO

Fatally injured or infected during this primitive procedure, several children die — there are no official figures — in a state where 17 of 24 districts are simultaneously classified by its own government as “food insecure” and “highly affected” by Maoists, who bank on the collapse of governance to aid their growing influence.

This is the belief: A child with a protruding belly has worms, which can be killed by plunging a red-hot iron through the sides of the stomach.

“The more a child cries and screams during the treatment, more germs are being killed,” said Bishu Hembrom, 18, who recalled his pain when he was so treated at age three.

“We have firm faith in this method of treatment,” said Ravi Tuddu, 30, a Santhal tribesman and head of Mirgitand village, 180 km south east of Ranchi in East Singhbhum district, which, with 69 per cent literacy, is Jharkhand’s most literate.

At Tuddu’s instance, children display their ugly scars, some still raw.

The maiming of children is a consequence of Jharkhand’s healthcare disaster: the state needs 806 primary health centres but has 330. It is also short of 1,099 health sub-centres, seven community health centres and 8,000 health workers.

On April 13, HT reported how many tribal children in East Singhbhum eat wild berries and ants because almost every national social-security programme, theoretically serving as cradle-to-grave buffers against destitution, had failed.

The officially poor are slated to rise to more than 400 million, more than 100 million above the previous estimate, with a Planning Commission review underway ahead of a new food-security legislation. But East Singhbhum’s experience warns that the challenges of poverty are beyond a statistical measure.

Most tribals HT spoke to were officially poor but had no access to five major national schemes (subsidised food, child health care, mid-day meals, jobs for work and old-age pensions) on which India is slated to spend Rs 118,000 crore in 2010-11.

Jharkhand’s Special Secretary (Health) Dr Nitin Madan Kulkarni acknowledges the failure of “proper monitoring mechanism” for doctors and health staff. “We take departmental actions as and when they are caught neglecting their duties,” said Kulkarni.

The larger issue: The Jharkhand government deploys less than 2,200 doctors, including lecturers in medical colleges, for 30 million people, a ratio of one doctor for every 10,000 people, one of the worst in the world.

The ideal for India should be one doctor for 3,500 people. Jharkhand’s government doctors are among the worst paid in India. A plain MBBS earns Rs 22,000. Neighbouring Bihar pays Rs 35,000 while the government in the nation’s richest state, Delhi, pays Rs 43,000.

Unsurprisingly, of 2,468 doctors recruited by Jharkhand five years ago, 2,200 have left the state, said Indian Medical Association’s Jharkhand Chief Patron Dr Ajay Kumar Singh.

"The government lacks the will to plug loopholes in the healthcare system,” said Singh, pointing to the 4,700 doctors rolled out annually by Andhra — a state that has had the greatest success extinguishing the Maoist movement — in comparison to Jharkhand’s 190.

Back in Mirgitand, Sagen Kisku, 7 is one of the several children who survived the hot rods. He could not remember when he got the big scar on his stomach. It still hurts, he said.

“It’s a superstition found among various tribal sects,” said regional deputy director, health Dr Shiv Shankar Birua.

Protruding bellies is a characteristic of patients suffering from malaria, kalaazar, blood cancer, or typhoid, said Dr Birua. They can be cured if “rushed to doctors on time”, he said.

The 33 families of Mirgitand can’t do that. The nearest PHC is 35 km southwest of the village. There is no public transport, so Mirgitand’s people never consider going there.

Post-office worker Manoranjan Mahato (45) in Kesarpur, a village near Mirgitand, explained how he lost his infant son to hot-rods five years ago.

"The practice can’t be wiped out,” said Mahato. “Unless healthcare facilities are available free or at reasonable prices.”
Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger.

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First Published: Apr 20, 2010 00:50 IST