01/09/2017 5:35 PM IST | Updated 01/09/2017 5:36 PM IST

415 Children Died In Gorakhpur Since August, But Cows Are CM Adityanath's Priority

The new normal.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In the six months since Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, we have lost count of the number of times his government has announced policies involving cows. A bulk of the media coverage, soon after he was chosen for the role, focused on Adityanath's umbilical bond with the beast, his bonhomie with the cows in his ashram made for feel-good photo ops.

After he came to power, his government's concern over education or healthcare in the state, in comparison to its attention on cows, has never been as intense — until, of course, horrifying reports of children dying in Gorakhpur, the CM's constituency, due to alleged lack of oxygen surfaced last month.

Since August, 415 children have died at the BRD Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur, according to latest reports. To put this number in perspective, here are some facts. Last year the total number of such deaths was 364. There are three months to go still this year.

A majority of these deaths was caused by Japanese encephalitis, an incurable vector-borne disease that has plagued eastern Uttar Pradesh for decades now. Images of grieving families and suffering children are all over the media in the past few days. But those visuals haven't, presumably, distracted the CM from his favourite animal.

According to reports, the Adityanath government has now cleared a plan to set up gaushalas (cow shelters) with a capacity to host 1,000 bovines in seven districts of the state and 16 urban locations. This is believed to be the first phase of a major project that would see the UP government help build such shelters in every block of the state.

Such ideas of cow welfare are hardly unique. In fact, care for the cow has been the buzz since the BJP-led government at the Centre came to power in 2014. In a typical example of such bovine concern, The Indian Express reported today that Union Minister of State (Home) Hansraj G Ahir has proposed 1,000 hectares of forest land to be allotted to set up "cow sanctuaries" in every district of the 16 states where cow slaughter is banned. Such measures, he added, must be taken to prevent "violence due to cow smuggling".

In contemporary India, the line between allegations of cow smuggling, cow slaughter, beef-eating and vile xenophobia is nebulous. There are countless instances in the past two years, starting with the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015 by a mob, who barged into his house and checked for contraband meat in his fridge. In report after report over the last several months, we have read of people being attacked by self-styled cow vigilantes on the suspicion of smuggling beef. Some of these victims, who were beaten up and died, were dairy farmers merely transporting their animals from one place to another.

From extolling the virtues of cow dung to recommending cow urine as a miracle health drink, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), from which our government takes its cues, has elevated the quadruped as the most precious animal in the country. According to the RSS, the dung of a cow can be used to make bunkers, cosmetics, medicines and is highly beneficial to pregnant women. But all this is familiar news, part of what is now known as the 'new normal'.

What beggars belief, however, is that the UP CM would have the temerity to propose such a major cow-care project, while children in his state are dying in droves every day. To give credit where it's due, CM Adityanath has, in the past, spoken up against the appalling condition of the healthcare system. In March this year, he rose in Parliament to hurl a sharp indictment at the previous Samajwadi Party government for failing to control the menace of encephalitis. The disease, which affects the nervous system, is spread via mosquitoes. It can be arrested with a combination of vaccination and better hygiene and sanitation, none of which was as much of a priority to the previous administration as it should have been.

It's also true that the disease is pervasive among the most economically disenfranchised segment of society — especially Dalits and Muslims — neglected by successive governments. But now that Adityanath has the reigns in his hand, his rhetorical flourishes about the failure of earlier governments make little sense. It's time to rise above the past and exhibit a strong will to change the ground realities. Unfortunately, being blind-sided by bovines is not going to help achieve such goals or curry favour for the CM with the public.

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