in a repeat of last year's grim toll, over 20 children, including infants, died of
malnutrition and other diseases in two gram panchayats in Orissa's Similipal Wildlife Sanctuary since January 2007. A report by an
independent fact-finding team links poverty, unhygienic drinking water and absence of healthcare facilities to the deaths.
The team visited the Gudgudia and Barehipani panchayat s in Mayurbhanj district in early June this year. Diseases such as diarrhoea, jaundice and pneumonia are endemic in the 65 villages in the sanctuary, says the report.
Data by the Union ministry of rural development show most of the villagers, mostly tribals, get less than one square meal a day. A ban imposed by the Supreme Court on collection of non-timber forest produces from the sanctuary's buffer zones has worsened problems, says the report.
The report reveals that implementation of welfare schemes by the state and programmes under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are not functioning properly in the area.
The report notes that the situation of the villagers worsens between June and October when the sanctuary remains closed and the roads turn to slush, restricting villagers' access to the world outside.
Due to the absence of transport facilities the nearest primary healthcare centre which is about 40 km away from the area also remains inaccessible to the villagers, the report notes.
Debabrata Swain, director of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, says there is "some exaggeration" in the report, but admits that the healthcare situation within the sanctuary is indeed non-existent. The forest department is trying to address the problem by conducting health camps in the villages, he says.
The fact finding team has recommended lifting the ban on non-timber forest produces and suggested a committee chaired by the scheduled caste-scheduled tribe commission to look into the matter.
State healthcare officials couldn't be reached for comment.
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