The long road to Deoghar
Every monsoon as the rivers swell with floodwaters, millions of devotees congregate on the banks of the Ganges at Sultanganj, Bihar to celebrate Shrawan, the season of rain.
They perform a seemingly uncomplicated ritual – after a dip in the river, they collect holy water in little pitchers that are then suspended on either ends of a bamboo pole. These poles balance on the shoulders of the devotees who then trek a 105 km distance to a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva in Deoghar. Though the trek is strenuous and must be done barefoot, men, women and children undertake this long journey as it implies wish fulfilment, expiation of sins, and moksha (salvation) from the cycle of birth and death.
The festival lasts a month and attracts pilgrims from different parts of the country as well as from neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan. Almost 6 million visitors undertake the pilgrimage from Sultanganj to Deoghar each year and despite its ancient origins, facilities in Sultanganj continue to be basic.
Poor sanitation and hygiene facilities along the route creates create a perfect environment for the poliovirus to circulate and attack inadequately immunized children who accompany their parents on the pilgrimage. In the past, the Shrawani congregation has been responsible for infecting children and also importation of the virus to polio-free
Polio vaccinator Sailesh Kumar immunizes a child at night in Sultanganj
In a strategically important move, every year as Sultanganj gears up to host millions of visitors, the Health Department together with UNICEF and NPSP (National Polio Surveillance Programme) prepare elaborate microplans to vaccinate children with the oral polio vaccine.
In Sultanganj alone, 25 vaccinator teams are deployed on the banks of the river, at bus stops, railway stations, petrol pumps, rest houses and hotels.
In addition, eleven health posts are established to cater to the needs of this enormous transiting population throughout the month.
Over 3,000 children are immunized every day against polio by different teams. In 2006, over 130,000 children were immunized during the course of the month-long festival. Of these, 80,000 were immunized in Sultanganj alone.
This year, around 46,000 children have already been immunized in the first five days in the four districts of Bihar (Banka, Bhagalpur, Jamui, Munger) enroute Deoghar where special immunization teams are deployed for the festival.
Minute logistical planning is essential – 150 hand pumps are serviced before the fair to ensure that safe drinking water is available to all pilgrims. A 24-hour control room is set up on the riverside to assist pilgrims in case of emergency. The Primary Health Centre is also open night and day. The activity is also non-stop.
Though fewer teams work after nightfall, vaccinators continue to immunize young children with the same intensity. ”This is because pilgrims travelling with children prefer to visit Sultanganj at night when the heat is not too oppressive’”said 20 year old Sippu Kumar who volunteers to work as a vaccinator every round.