On the morning of March 10, the government school teachers of Ghata village in Haryana’s Mewat district went from door to door to urge parents to send their children to school. They came back with just 20 children, most of whom were girls.

“When we go to their houses, children run out of the house and up the hill in barely two minutes,” said Zakir Hussain, the government school principal, pointing to the Aravalli ranges behind the village.

Officially, 185 children are registered in the primary grades of the school and 60 children in the middle grades. But ever since rumours began to circulate in the local Muslim Meo community in early March that schoolchildren were being administered injections that would make them sterile, parents had stopped sending them to school. Attendance had fallen to as low as 5%, claimed officials.

Government officials have clarified no injections are being administered to children.

The first rumour was triggered by a truncated video taken from the Hindi news channel ABP News. The channel runs a programme called “Viral Sach”, which deconstructs and disproves rumours. The programme’s edition, which ran on February 11, focused on rumours in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka that school children were being injected with a substance that causes sterility.

In February, the Union health ministry had launched a campaign to administer the measles-rubella vaccine to children between the ages of nine months and 15 years. The campaign started with the states of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka, Goa, and Lakshadweep. The campaign was yet to reach Haryana.

The first half of the ABP News programme summarised the rumours that had spread in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, while the second half featured experts, including doctors, debunking them. Only the first half of the programme circulated on WhatsApp in Mewat.

Soon, another video that had been shot locally surfaced. On March 4, an eight-year-old child from Meoli village was brought to Mewat’s government medical college with symptoms of breathlessness. The child complained that he was injected on his scrotum while he was playing in the jungle by an unknown person.

Dr Sansar Chand, the director of the college said that the child was kept under observation for a day and discharged. “He was breathing fast. His systems were perfectly all right,” said Chand. “We suspect the child had an emotional outburst in public. Perhaps it was just hyperventilation.”

But it wasn’t just viral videos – some people who had relatives working in South India, particularly Bengaluru and Chennai, heard about the rumours on phone.

In Autha village, Rashida Khatoon said her son, Rehan, who works as an air conditioning mechanic in Bengaluru, told her about the rumours which he had read about online. Since then, Khatoon stopped sending her seven grandchildren to school.

Harooni Khatoon’s son Khalid called her from Chennai and told her not send his children to school. “Duniya keh rahi hai,” said Harooni, a resident of Alipore Tigra. The whole world is talking about it, not just us.

Harooni Khatoon's son called her from Chennai and told her not to send his children to school. (Photo: Menaka Rao)

Looking for reason

Outside the school at Ghata village government health official Dr BS Singhal tried to reason with some men.

Singhal started by saying, “On the road, I saw an animal whose face was that of a lion and the body was that of a pig,” said Singhal. “Would you believe me if I said that?”

He waited for a moment people to react. Some of the men said “No” but did not seem to understand the point of this story. Singhal then added, “Rumours are always false. Please do not believe them.”

This hypothetical exercise to separate truth from rumours was repeated in the next school at Alipore Thirda village.

“There is no injection made in the world which can make a person sterile in just one shot,” he said.

Still, residents of the area were not convinced of and proceeded to ask him about whether their children might die from these injections.

“Ailaan nahi kiya, pakki nahi hui, tasalli nahi hui,” said Mohammed Hanif, a resident of Alipore Tigra. Hanif was adamant that only a declaration by the maulvi over the community loudspeaker stating would convince him that the rumours were false.

In three villages that Scroll.in visited, government officials had not held any public meetings regarding this issue till last week. Singhal visited two villages on Friday. Only teachers, Accredited Health Social Workers or ASHAs and other local workers were talking to people in the villages about the rumours. But without answers to worried parents’ questions about children falling sick or dying, they could do little to keep children in school. For instance, they did not know enough about what happened to the child from Meoli village to counter the claim.

But, most children went back to school during the week after Holi to write their exams, said Dinesh Shastri of the district education department. The principals of two schools confirmed the situation had improved but added that some children were still staying away.

Mehboob Khan, father of two girls who were in school that day, lingered outside the school gate just in case. “I am guarding my children,” he said.

Other health programmes suffer

Lack of school attendance had already caused some damage in early March. “For two weeks we could not run any government programme,” said Dr SK Kaushik of the district health department.

Every Monday, school children are given doses of iron and folic acid supplements in the form of tablets. Twice a year, children are given a dose of Albendazole as part of the deworming programme. The first dose of 2017 was due in March.

Deworming pills (top image) and iron and folic acid syrup bottles (bottom image)

But data collected by the district health department indicate that over the first two weeks of March, only a small fraction of all school-going children between the ages of 10 and 19 received the dose. Of the 1.35 lakh children in this age group, only 14,000 had taken the iron and folic acid supplement, 6,500 had taken the vitamin A syrup, and 5,000 had taken the deworming tablet, said Dr SK Kaushik.

Said Dr Krishan Kumar, senior medical officer at the community health centre of Firozpur Zhirka block: “We can only give the children these supplements if they turn up in school.”

This is the first part in a series on the spread of rumours in Haryana’s Mewat district.

This reporting project has been made possible partly by funding from New Venture Fund for Communications.