As the sun appears behind the palm fronds in Patna's Fatuah block, the extent of flooding is at once obvious. The Ganga and its tributary, Punpun, have overflowed their banks and look like oceans-in-waiting.
Motorised and manually rowed boats are plying where a crop stood a few days ago. However, the waters have not deterred Sushila Devi and Pato Devi, two Anganwadi (childcare) workers who will function as a team of vaccinators in this polio vaccination drive. More than 70,000 vaccinators, supervisors, monitors and officials are in the field for the five-day house-to-house drive in which vaccinators will try and reach 20 million children.
After weeks of meticulous planning, today is the first day of the drive. At six in the morning, Sushila Devi has her blue box slung over her shoulders and is heading fast for Ranipur village and (later) Saidpur village in Fatuah block when we join her. She laughs as she looks at our vehicle. "How far will that get us?” Her remark causes quite a stir among the writers and cameramen intent on capturing the energy of the polio eradication programme.
Nevertheless, they board the jeep and we start for Ranipur, about five kilometres from Fatuah. Soon enough, the prediction comes true and our path is intersected by a sprightly rivulet formed of flood water. Sushila Devi flashes an “What did I say” smile and jumps off the jeep. As we grapple with the possibility of taking off our shoes and walking in the slush, she and her assistant hold their slippers in their hands, lift their saris and wade through the water.
Floods are not new to Bihar, and roads stop short of many villages. "I always carry the vaccine on foot," the 50-year-old declares. That could mean walking for two miles, five miles or even more. As we barely manage to keep our foothold in the water, we are overtaken by two other women hurrying past. The blue box identifies them as vaccinators.
We gather in the hurried conversation that they are headed for villages five miles away and deep in the flooded area. "I hope we get a boat," says one of them. Sushila Devi recalls times when she had to walk with the box on her head in waist-deep water. The people acknowledged her commitment. "When I reached the village, women offered me clothes,” she says.
After walking for a few miles, we are in Ranipur. A major part of the village stands in water. Without losing a moment, Sushila Devi splashes through the water and calls out for children at the first house. After giving polio drops to three children, she asks a woman, "Where is the new-born?" She is told the infant is only 20 days old. "I have given polio drops to one-day-olds. Get the child," she says firmly but gently.
The mother complies, and Sushila Devi puts a "P" on the outer wall, indicating that all the children in the house have been vaccinated. Later, she explains to us, “We have been trained to deal with people’s concerns.” UNICEF has laid special emphasis on the training of vaccinators and others associated with the polio eradication drive.
In its role as the lead agency for the polio programme in the state, UNICEF has been working to produce a unified response of partners, including the government and donors. UNICEF has also been laying great emphasis on mobilising people for greater acceptance of the programme, producing people-friendly communication material and maintaining the cold chain throughout the state. The vaccinators form the backbone of the programme and care is taken to keep them motivated.
Sushila Devi and Pato Devi move from house to house even when the tracks are submerged in water. The reward for their hard work is the respect they enjoy in the community. Moreover, they know that Bihar has never been so close to eradicating polio. “We are not far from the destination,” says Sushila Devi. Yet, they know it is not yet the time to sit back and relax.
Around mid-day, the village is "covered" and Sushila Devi takes stock of the day's work. She and her companion have visited 70 houses and given polio drops to over 120 children. The flooding has delayed their work, but they know other vaccinators could be worse off. There is no lunch break, thanks to an early breakfast, and they set off for the next village.