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MEERUT, Feb 4: Amid all the hoopla over the Oscar nomination sweep by Slumdog Millionaire, there’s a real-life Indian tale of beating the odds that is also vying for the prized golden statuette.

A 38-minute US film called The Final Inch has been nominated in the best short documentary category.

It documents global efforts to finally eradicate polio and profiles one of those stricken by the paralysing illness, 25-year-old Mohammad Gulzar Saifi, from the north Indian city of Meerut.

“Polio is not a disease, it’s a disaster for many,” said Saifi, who wears leg braces and moves with the help of a battered metal walker too small for his slender five-foot frame.

“I was lucky, I had a good family who looked after me but what about those who don’t, those who are abandoned? I appeal to everyone to get their child vaccinated against polio,” he told AFP.

But the illness is proving tougher to wipe out than initially expected and remains endemic in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, where 1,643 cases were reported last year.

Nigeria topped the list with 791 cases and India was second with 556, according to WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

A key hurdle to combating the disease in India is the fact that tens of millions of children live in unsanitary conditions where diarrhoea is rampant, health officials say. Polio is spread through faeces.

Also in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, where most of the nation’s polio cases are reported and where Saifi’s city of Meerut is located, there have been rumours that the vaccine is part of a plot to sterilise Muslim children.

A number of ulema have joined a government campaign to fight polio, saying there is no truth to the rumours.

But while the rumours have played some part in the difficulty in combating the disease, poor hygiene and logistical problems — making sure the multiple-dose oral vaccine gets to every child from the dense cities to the remotest regions — are the biggest hurdles to eliminating the disease.

Saifi hopes his central role in the documentary, made by Oregon filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky, will help in the eradication efforts.

“Polio has no religion, it is religion-less. It doesn’t just affect Muslims, it affects Hindus, it affects everyone,” he said.

“Not to take the polio vaccination is wrong. Polio is an incurable disease, but if we have prevention, we don’t need a cure,” he said.

Like Slumdog Millionaire — about a slum orphan who wins India’s equivalent of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? quiz show — Saifi’s tale is also about overcoming challenges and turning adversity into success.

Saifi was raised by his mother and five brothers who supported him after his father became ill and was unable to work.

“I was the only one of my family to receive an education,” said Saifi, who graduated from high school and speaks English fluently.

But after graduation, as for many of India’s 70 million disabled who are often reduced to begging at traffic lights, there was no employment for him.

Instead he created a job for himself coaching neighbourhood children, first in a tiny room at his home in a poor district of Meerut.

Then, as the numbers grew, he rented a larger room which proudly bears a signboard declaring it the “Meharban Coaching Centre” — named after his late father — and the inscription “Every child is special”.

He tutors 60 children in English, maths and other subjects, charging 100 rupees a month for classes, though he adds: “I don’t charge those who can’t pay.”

Thanks to his film role, Saifi has become a celebrity in Meerut, a two-and-a-half hour drive from New Delhi.

But he’s still not famous enough for the local administration to grant him his most cherished wish — a three-wheel, hand-operated cycle to help him get around more easily.

“The government is supposed to give them to physically challenged people like me, but all I’ve had is promises, promises,” he said with a wry smile. —AFP