For most of the sixty years that India has been free, it was the Congress which was in power in Delhi and no one seemed particularly anxious to keep tabs on Muslim progress - or lack of it. The Muslim elite had left India for Pakistan leaving the poor and destitute among them to live as best as they can. Now, overnight as it were, the Congress has become self-consciously aware of the plight of the poor Muslims - not about the poor generally, but about the Muslim poor.
Nobody would grudge aid to Muslim poor but the Vedic prayer is happiness of all: sarve janah sukhino bhavantu. But quoting from Vedic scripts might elicit the charge of Hindu fundamentalism. Yet, even while one thinks of the Muslim poor, may one draw attention to children? To all children, and not just Muslim children? As was recently noted in The Economics & Political Weekly, in the Indian context for the poor, the safe delivery of a healthy child and the survival of both mother and child cannot be taken for granted.
The infant mortality rate in India is 67 per thousand live births; 47 per cent of children are undernourished; there are 60 million underweight children under the age of five and 67 per cent of preschool deaths are associated with malnutrition. And, according to published reports, as many as 2.42 million malnutrition-related deaths under the age of five are registered. Is anybody concerned? Or take certain forms of disabilities. According to the Deaf Aid Society, approximately four out of every 1,000 children are born deaf. In India with a population of about 1.027 billion, the deaf population is 14 million.
That would be the population of several countries in the world. Some of the figures made available by the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) are both shocking and painful. Of the 14 million, about 1.8 million are hearing impaired children. Approximately 40 to 50 per cent of students in schools for deaf children in Southern India have non-syndromic recessive deafness.
And how many schools are there in India for deaf students? Think of it. There are only 149 schools: one hundred and forty nine for a population of 1.2 billion. It is a crying shame. Only one per cent of deaf children in India get services through special schools. Not many realise that deaf children are much more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
According to an ICDS Feasibility study (Jan - Feb 2002) break-up of the joint family has robbed the disabled of proper care, especially if not receiving rehabilitation services - as is the case in most villages. Actually, only 10 per cent of the deaf population receive such services. The rest, largely, are nobody's business. The reality is that there will always be a lack of fully trained teachers of the deaf as compared to the number of children needing special services - especially, again, in remote rural areas.
Our rural areas continue to be neglected as they have always been. Of the deaf population receiving actual services, 90 per cent are urban based. Of the 10 per cent most are well-to-do. The cost of 'ear' / cochlear implant is as high as Rs 7 lakh and how many parents can afford to spend that much money? It would be more than what an average middle class family can save in an entire life time.
But can deafness be prevented? The surprising answer is yes, in certain circumstances. One is avoidance of consanguiness marriages. Consanguineous marriages are frequent in many parts of the country, notably in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. A consanguineous marriage is usually between cousins or uncle / niece. According to Dr Najoo Varkey who has been doing voluntary work at the Sheila Kothawala School for the Deaf for the past fifteen years in Bangalore, more than 50 per cent of the children at this school are deaf as a result of consanguineous marriages.
Consanguineous marriages are - or were - fairly common in the country. On an all-India level, of approximately 1,300,000 cases - Census 2001 - about 200,000 cases were the result of consanguinary marriages. In Karnataka of approximately 100,000 hearing impaired children, nearly 30,000 are those born of consanguinary marriages - a fact little known and much less publicised. What is even less publicised is the fact that deafness due to consanguinity is 100 per cent preventable.
In the words of the UNICEF regional director for South Central Asia, David P Hexton, 'nothing is costlier, to a low-income country like India than to allow a child to be exposed (before, during or after birth) to the risk of physical or other impairment, let it escalate into an irreversible disability, and then look for resources of rehabilitation that can never be adequate.'
Any impairment noticed in childhood, should be immediately looked into and guidance sought. But more importantly the very concept of two cousins or uncle / niece marriage must be shunned like hell. This is a matter for society to take note of. Most shocking to know that one in two rural marriages in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh are consanguineous.
And the children born out of such marriages are in many instances liable to suffer from not just deafness but other impairments like blindness as well. The usual excuse given for uncle / niece marriage is that the two belong to different gotras. That is a huge mistake. When a woman marries a man she assumes the man's gotra which may be legally sound but technically unacceptable. Again, such marriages are more common in rural areas because of shortage of male population. Clan leaders look the other way, very often unconscious of the fact that consanguineous marriages are, by definition, dangerous. But this fact needs to be dinned into every household - and that seldom happens.
Our politicians look for vote banks, not safe and happy households. It is easier to say that Muslims must get first preference to accessibility of resources than to preach against consanguineous marriages. The country doesn't have social reformers. Our gurus are poorly informed and do not carry much conviction either. In the circumstances, it is the duty of the government to educate and inform the unguided public. The Congress Party may take it lightly.
Cosing up to Islamic organisations is easier - and politically paying in the long run. But we need professionally trained counsellors in rural areas - but who will listen to this plea?