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Thousands of young mothers in India are paying with their lives to produce your cup of tea

Source | QUARTZ

Assam, India

Babita Jayram has beaten the odds.

The 21-year-old sits in one corner of the hospital bed, brushing her hair with the slow, steady strokes of a purple comb. The nine months of pregnancy mostly spent at a tea garden on the eastern fringes of Assam were uneventful. There were no complications during the delivery. A healthy newborn, curled gently on her lap, sleeps quietly.

Another woman sits on the opposite side of the bed, cradling her own infant. Some of the other 27 beds in the ward even accommodate a relative or two, precariously perched on the edge.

An assortment of cloth and plastic bags hang from nails hammered into weathered walls. Thin curtains, barely green, flutter in a meagre breeze made possible by the toil of ageing fans above. Then, the power goes out on a muggy, overcast June afternoon. The postnatal ward of Dibrugarh’s Assam Medical College and Hospital, the best-equipped government hospital in all of eastern Assam, turns into a warm, dimly-lit cave packed with recovering mothers and newborns.

Reena Dutta Ahmed, who heads the college’s gynaecology department, insists they are the lucky ones.

“You people cannot imagine,” said Ahmed, a slight, wispy-haired woman. “No other faculty in any other department can imagine a pregnant lady coming with two gram or three gram.” The doctor was referring to the levels of haemoglobin in blood. The recommended level is about 12 grams per decilitre.

 “She cannot breathe. You know, she cannot breathe,” Ahmed went on, describing the condition of the mothers she encounters, with some vexation. “After a few minutes she is blue, then she dies.”

India accounts for 17% of all maternal deaths in the world. The country’s maternal mortality ratio was 167 per 100,000 live births in 2013. The ratio for Assam was 301, the highest for any state in India. Within the state, the five districts served by the Assam Medical College and Hospital—Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat and Golaghat—had a collective maternal mortality ratio of 404 per 100,000 live births in 2013, which resembles the ratios in sub-Saharan Africa.

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