When a man had a little money saved, over 10 years ago, he installed a handpump outside his small house in Badhariya village. The 1st he heard of the handpump being too shallow was when his 9-year-old daughter died of encephalitis this year  and the grieving father was told it was because of the water she had drunk from the handpump.
With water-borne acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) now making up close to 95 per cent of the encephalitis cases across eastern Uttar Pradesh, there is a renewed focus on the water the area's children are drinking. "The big problem in this area is that since it is low-lying and surrounded by rivers, the water table is very high, which makes contamination easier," says Gorakhpur's district magistrate Ravi Kumar NG.
Milind Gore, who heads the National Institute of Virology's Gorakhpur research unit, says water samples taken by them near handpumps in affected areas have shown the presence of enteroviruses, which can cause AES.
An important part of the administration's work to prevent encephalitis is discouraging people from using these handpumps and installing India Mark II pumps. "We have been sanctioned Rs 160 crore [USD 34 309 018] for improving drinking water, through which 4600 handpumps are being installed in Gorakhpur district alone," says Kumar.
But while the shallow handpump is now accepted as the villain in the piece, residents say they had to take no permissions while installing handpumps, many of them up to 25 years ago. "We got the contractor to put in a handpump, and when he hit water, he stopped. How would village people know how deep to put it in?" says a man, whose brother lost his infant daughter to AES 12 days ago.
"No one has ever told us there is any problem with our handpump," says a woman of Bargadahi village in Gorakhpur. Her 6-year-old daughter was hospitalized with AES a month ago but has largely recovered. The entire family still drinks water from the same handpump outside their house.
In other villages, some of the deeper handpumps installed by the government are located inside the compounds of the better off, often upper caste, residents of the village, a problem the district administration too acknowledges. Against this backdrop, the Centre's continued insistence on improved handpumps in an area in which groundwater poses problems seems fraught with danger.
Commentary: It is still saddening to see that we do not even know what diseases are children are dying off! While authorities in Saudi Arabia are able to identify 1 person with a new type of viral infection, in India thousands of children die every year due to viral brain fever without any known causes!! I hope that our large medical institutions like ICMR, and big hospitals like AIIMS, SGPGI (Lucknow) should look in to this shameful finding and try to find the cause of these serious illnesses so that we can try to save these unfortunate children.