With President Droupadi Murmu slated to visit Gadchiroli in Maharashtra on Wednesday, leading rural health expert Dr Abhay Bang has flagged concerns about “apathy” in providing healthcare to the tribal community and the “futile” and “stigmatising” population screening for Sickle Cell anaemia, which is a hereditary blood disorder.
“Tribal people receive the worst health care and a roadmap for the future, with a tribal health mission and annual allocation of nearly Rs 30,000 crore, has been recommended. But five years of inaction have passed and tribal people continue to suffer the highest rates of malaria, malnutrition and child mortality,” he said.
Bang had chaired the Centre’s expert committee on tribal health, which concluded in the first-ever national report on the issue in 2018 that the community had the worst healthcare status in the country.
Raising concerns over the plan to screen nearly 200 districts for Sickle Cell disease, he said, “This gene (Sickle Cell trait) is found among 10 to 20 per cent of the tribal and Dalit population. Those found to have a single gene are given Sickle cards, with instructions not to marry a Sickle partner. Those who have the Sickle gene inherited from both parents, which carries a probability of about one percent, and show severe symptoms certainly need and deserve special attention at health centres. But population screening is a futile exercise because those detected to have Sickle trait usually hide that for the marriage market, defeating the original purpose. Worse, it stigmatises STs and SCs to be genetically inferior.”
Bang said, “Can the President stop this targeted population screening that has disastrous potential consequences for the tribal people and Dalits?”
Bang and his wife Rani run the non-profit Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH).
Bang also urged the President to consider effective solutions to resolve tribal unrest on a national level. “Tribal people have often expressed their anguish by way of violence, such as the Naxalite movement in Gadchiroli, or the current violence in Manipur. The PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Forest Rights Act have been very potent and effective solutions to tribal unrest. Gadchiroli district has led the country in the implementation of these two,” he said.
Speaking about the President’s visit, Bang said, “We are very happy that the first ever tribal President is visiting the tribal district of Gadchiroli. We heartily welcome her and hope the President plays a role in protecting tribal lives.”