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Significance of the Polio Success

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: January 22, 2014, 4:29 PM IST
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We love our stars. Whether it is Cinema, Cricket, Politics or Development we like to see stars on our television screen. As soon as a movement makes news the media starts focusing on certain individuals - whether it is the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the Anti-corruption movement we instantly see certain stars emerging as the focus of media attention. The audience, the people of India, believes that certain super heroes will come and transform the country. Somebody will bring "good governance" if elected as PM, somebody will rid the society of corruption, somebody will do this, somebody will do that, and we shall all worship them for their great heroic achievements. In the land of Ramayana and Mahabharata we are forever looking for our Rama or Arjuna to fight against evil and take the country forward.
This is where the significance of the success of India in eradicating polio lies. There are no stars. Try to name one person who is the star behind this success story and you will fail. And yet the global media is praising India for an achievement that is nothing short of astonishing. There are several reasons why this is an extraordinary achievement, each having a lesson for the development sector:
(a) The campaign required massive coordination between different government agencies as well as NGOs. Government of India and state governments are known for their lack of coordination. There is still a massive distrust in sarkari circles about NGOs. Yet the movement to eradicate polio has shown that precise coordination between different wings of the government, from Centre to Panchayats and municipalities is possible. It has also shown that in spite of lot of problems government officials can work in tandem with NGOs to reach the door step of every village in the country and immunize the children.
(b) The campaign has successfully mobilized religious leaders to convince the parents that the pulse polio campaign is beneficial. A country known for religious discord has seen a successful mobilization of leaders of all religions to achieve the desired result.
(c) In an age of self-centric "me and me only" mind set, several lakhs volunteers have worked to take the vaccine to the door step of the children. The exact figure of volunteers is not known but it is likely to be close to a million. There are others, who have worked in small rural NGOs for next to nothing and have reached the remotest corners of their districts.
(d) Indian political parties are known for constant disagreement among each other. However all political parties have cooperated with the Central government in eradicating polio.
(e) Development work in India often hampered by chaotic and short-term funding by the international donor agencies. The situation is now so bad that even a 3 year long funding is considered a surprise. Development sector is also plagued by lack of cooperation among donor agencies. But in this case there has been continuous support over a decade without expecting immediate results and more and more donor agencies have pulled in to support Government of India in its effort.
(f) Perhaps most importantly the eradication of polio is not the outcome of the work of a great leader or a star. Rather millions of ordinary Indians, with all their flaws and limitations, have worked over the years in order to achieve this success. They star of the story are these unknown ordinary citizens of India who have together achieved this extra-ordinary feat.
The success of the eradication of polio from India will hopefully have an impact beyond the battle for immunization of children, which of course is very important. It will hopefully not only eradicate polio for ever but also cynicism about what Indians can achieve collectively. It will hopefully give hope and strength to all unknown individuals and small organisations working in different parts of India that their dreams can come true. If India ever wins the battle against poverty, disease and backwardness, it will be because of them and not because of stars we see on television.
First Published: January 22, 2014, 4:29 PM IST