Disease replaces terrorism as major poll issue in Tripura

By Sujit Chakraborty, IANS,

Agartala : A disease has replaced terrorism as the major poll issue in Tripura. The state has faced insurgency for three decades, but the death of 40 people and the illness of hundreds more from a virulent form of meningitis in the past two months is on top of the agenda for the people and politicians.

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“During our poll campaign, we are drawing attention of the masses to the failure of the CPI-M led Left Front government to control the outbreak of the fast spreading disease,” said Ratan Lal Nath of the opposition Congress party.

Tripura goes to the polls for its two Lok Sabha seats April 23.

Claiming that over 2,000 people have been affected by meningococcal meningitis and around 200 killed, the opposition parties demanded the disease-affected areas be declared “pestilence-stricken”. The Tripura government rejected the demand.

While addressing a recent campaign meeting in north Tripura, senior Congress leader Nath said: “Meningococcal meningitis had attacked the people in Delhi and other parts of the country earlier, but the authorities concerned quickly controlled the viral disease.”

“It is an unprecedented development in the electoral history of Tripura that an outbreak of a disease has turned into a major poll issue,” said Dipankar Banerjee, a professor in Tripura University.

The issue rocked the state assembly during the just-concluded budget session.

“With insurgency on the wane, political parties are trying to make this disease a poll issue this time,” Banerjee said.

Local newspapers have been highlighting the meningococcal meningitis issue as well.

An evidently-worried state government has set up makeshift health centres and organised hundreds of health camps in the affected areas. It has cancelled all leaves of doctors, nurses and other paramedic staff and even kept ready an Indian Air Force helicopter for moving doctors, medicines and patients.

“Soon after the outbreak of the disease in the latter part of January, we brought the matter to the notice of New Delhi-based National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and all the investigation and treatments were according to their advice,” Health Minister Tapan Chakraborty said.

The state government has also sought 50,000 vaccines against the disease from the central government and now plans to use this to turn the tables on the Congress, which is in power at the centre.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) that leads the state’s ruling Left Front held a recent meeting, where it blamed the central government for not sending the required vaccines.

Tripura CPI-M state secretary Bijon Dhar said: “After the Left Front government has successfully tamed the militancy problem in the northeastern state, the opposition parties are making the disease an election issue, as if the Marxist government creates the meningitis.

“The UPA (United Progressive Alliance, which is led by the Congress) government did not show their responsibility and cooperation to control the disease even as the Congress is making an absolute non-issue an election issue to create panic among the people,” said Dhar, a CPI-M central committee member.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) have also blamed the Left Front government for failure to control the disease.

Workers of these parties have been burning the health minister in effigy before campaign meetings in various parts of the state.

“The health minister should resign owning moral responsibility for the loss of so many innocent lives, especially of tribals,” Tripura BJP president Nilmani Deb said.

NICD officials say the current outbreak of meningococcal meningitis started in East Khasi Hills and Garo Hills of Meghalaya late last year and has now spread to Mizoram and Tripura. “The infectious disease is also creating havoc in the adjacent Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeast Bangladesh,” they said.

“Over 250 people including children and women have died from the disease in the past few months in the three northeastern states, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram,” the NICD officials told reporters here.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at [email protected])