research institute for compassionate economics

Contradictions and health in rural Madhya Pradesh

Written by Diane Coffey on December 23rd, 2011

In November, Dean and I visited friends in Allahabad, who took us to some villages on the borders of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Crossing the border from Shakargarh, in southern Uttar Pradesh, into Madhya Pradesh, we noticed a decline in the quality of the roads. Like their neighbors across the Uttar Pradesh border, however, many families in this region were extremely poor.

We stopped the car by the side of the road near a village not too far from the border. A sandy village lane, lined by leftover stones from the quarries where the villagers worked, marked the way from the road to people’s homes. We stopped at one home where about 20 men and women were gathered. While our friends introduced us and began talking to some of the men, I watched a group of women, seated on the ground in a circle around a woman who seemed very sick. Slowly, as if she were very delicate, some of the women from the circle helped her stand and walk behind one of the mud walls that led to the house. Others came to join our conversation.

I asked them whether the woman who had just been taken into the house was ill. They replied that she had lost her six month old daughter had died the night before. The women seemed taken aback at the death of this girl; initially, I didn’t know what to make of this since the infant mortality rate is high in this region. The women explained, however, that the baby girl “had laughed and played” until very soon before her death. They must have reiterated four or five times how the little girl had been, until a short time before “laughing and playing”; the loss of a seemingly healthy infant had taken them by surprise.

Though I had an academic interest in what the baby girl had died of, I felt that it would be inappropriate to ask more questions, and thus keep the women from tending to the grieving mother. We thanked the women, and turned to go, but one said that she was returning to her house—did we want to join her? We accepted and followed her down another stone-lined sand path.

When we arrived at her home, we were greeted by a young woman in a pink salwar kameez sitting by a fire outside a mud home. She greeted us heartily, using a clear, proper Hindi that indicated that she had been to school. She was the daughter of the woman who had taken us home.

When we asked the two women about government programs in the village, the young woman started to move to towards the door of the house to retrieve the families’ MNREGS job card—a form of identification necessary to participate in MNREGS, a public employment program. But rather than standing and walking over to the house, she used her hands to scoot towards the door. She had been severely crippled by polio, probably at a young age.

As we talked more, it became clear that the woman had been sent to school, and was doing distance education courses from the village, occasionally taking long bus rides into town to take an exam. She also taught at an informal school in the village.

For a woman with polio in rural Madhya Pradesh, these accomplishments were extraordinary. Already at an educational disadvantage due to her sex, she likely faced severe discrimination as a disabled person. The woman did not have any sort of mobility aid; even if she had a wheel chair, it would have been impossible to use it in the village, where paths are narrow, uneven and full of brambles. She either scooted or was carried wherever she went. While it was clear that the young woman was intelligent and well-spoken, it amazed me that in spite of these challenges, her family had allowed and facilitated her education.

The juxtaposition of the lives of the two girls was sobering. The healthy baby girl who “laughed and played” lost her health, and her life, in what seemed to the village women like an instant. The young woman with polio lived for many years in crippling poor health, yet it did not stop her from making incredibly unlikely accomplishments.