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An Invited Infanticide

An Invited Infanticide

“A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child”: American author Jay Neugeboren.

A heart-wrenching sight of five children who met their ‘watery grave’ last year while swimming in a river close to my home town in Kannur refused to fade from my memory until the recent horror story of over 60 infants met their ‘gasy grave’ in five days allegedly due to the shortage of oxygen at Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical college Hospital in Gorakhpur.  While in the former case the children themselves ran unaware into the death-trap, the latter case unfolds the most poignant fact that the victims were infants and their mass-killing was ‘avoidable’, an invited infanticide for that matter.

The Gorakhpur tragedy has sent shockwaves across India provoking widespread outrage and condemnation across the political spectrum and social media: ‘Find out the truth behind the tragedy, fix the responsibility of the culprits, punish the guilty, let the chief minister and the health minister of UP accept their moral responsibility of the gross loss of human lives and resign.’ Strongly worded tweets, “No one should be allowed to use the words, ‘Unfortunate’ or ‘Tragedy’ on Gorakhpur episode. This was a murder,” came from Faye D’Souza , editor of Mirror Now News Channel.   Nobel Laureate and child advocate Kailash Satyarthi too echoed similar words, “This is not a tragedy. It's a massacre. Is this what 70 years of freedom means for our children?"

In the furore that followed the disaster, different role-players were quick to pass the buck and wash their hands.  So, let’s go by facts to ascertain the role of the hospital administration and the state government in inviting the mass infanticide by their long time gross negligence which to say the least has turned out to be criminal.

The Chief Minister, who has represented Gorakhpur in parliament for nearly 20 years, claims that he had visited the state-run hospital on August 9 and had asked officials if there were any issues or they required any help from the government but was told that there were none. However, it was not hard for any perceptive person to see the double standards being followed by the UP chief minister: He claims that just a few days ago, he had personally visited the hospital. But in a selective amnesia he failed to learn of the impending loss of human lives. While the number of infants died reportedly crossed 70, Adityanath minimized it to just 30 that too, not because of a cut off in oxygen supply but of encephalitis and unhygienic conditions!

In a knee-jerk reaction he was quick to suspend the BRD College Principal Rajiv Mishra allegedly on grounds of negligence and administrative lapses relating to delayed payment to the gas supplier. However, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has condemned the move. “The suspension of only the principal is completely wrong. It’s an administrative failure. Everyone should be held accountable. If you’re suspending him, then suspend the local admin too and ban the company,” asserted IMA president K K Aggarwal.

As the blame game progressed, in a classic case of red herring  Dr. Kafeel Ahmad Khan, the head of the encephalitis ward and a paediatrician who arranged oxygen cylinders from private nursing homes and saved many children from the jaw of death, was made a “scapegoat” in the incident and finally was sacked on seemingly baseless allegations. Condemning the sacking of Dr Khan, the resident doctors of AIIMS stated: “With great pain we have to say that once again a doctor has been made a scapegoat for the infrastructural lapse and failure of the government.”

It’s disgusting to learn that a 950-bed medical college hospital run by the  state  catering to patients not just from Gorakhpur but also adjoining districts in eastern UP, Bihar and Nepal, as the biggest centre for neo-natal care in the region,  often overloaded with children mostly from impoverished backgrounds, has not put in place the most needed ambulance service. This negligence explains the reason why Dr. Khan had to take four trips to ferry oxygen cylinders.

The tragedy saw Yogi Adityanath recapturing a Narendra Modi moment by going emotional, wiping his tears as he spoke to the parents of the little victims, and holding a tearful news conference at the institute where he almost broke down while stressing his love for children, meanwhile evading the question why the oxygen vendor hadn't been paid on time.  Soon after, he issued an official communique for a “grand Krishna Janmashtami celebration in a traditional and grand way across the state”! His words and crocodile tears didn’t match his actions.

As the horrific scenes of the drama were laid bare, the Uttar Pradesh Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh reportedly admitted that corruption had been detected in the administration of BRD Medical College. “As against the demand of Rs 68 lakh for the purchase of oxygen cylinders at the hospital, the Yogi Adityanath government had released Rs two crore on August 5. But the hospital administration made payments not before August 11 and even then it spent only Rs 11 lakh. Why? Because of ‘commission khori’ (the practice of seeking commission),” he said as quoted by PTI.

Well, if the delayed payment was due to the dilly dallying of the so called ‘commission khori’, in the aftermath of the tragedy the National Human Rights Commission has sent a notice to the Yogi Adityanath government asking it to submit a report on the issue four weeks’ time. Viewing the tragedy as a "serious violation of Right to Life", the commission has demanded a detailed report on the steps taken by the state government to rehabilitate the affected families.

The mass killing in Gorakhpur’s BRD hospital undoubtedly was an invited infanticide caused by the criminal apathy of the state government and the hospital administration that went into a selective amnesia about the stark ground realities of the medical institution.

The Gorakhpur tragedy holds a mirror that reflects two glaring ground realities: The shabby state of healthcare system in UP, that too in the very home turf of the chief minister. The wrong priorities of the state government that revolves around welfare measures for cows and not humans, lays emphasis on non-issues like singing ‘Vande Mataram’, temple-construction, arranging ambulance service for cows and allotting huge fund for the protection of ‘stray animals’ ( read cows).

Incidentally, the UP government in its budget for this fiscal year has allocated 40 crores for the “ besahara pashu” (stray cows). If only the government had provided sufficient fund for its messy public healthcare system, it could have saved millions of human lives that are infinitely more precious than animals!

After all 70 years down the line of free India, which government has given us such nuggets of wisdom like, ‘Taj Mahal does not represent our culture’?   The gory disaster exposes the gross reality of our nation hastening to become a superpower where cows are happier and safer than human beings, history has taken a severe beating in the hands of myths and superstitions, people are categorically divided on the basis of economic status, religious, caste and political affiliations.   Precious infants nipped in buds, visitors rushed in, the buck is being  passed on, probes ordered, committees formed, promises made and at the end of the day who are the losers if not the inconsolable parents who have forever lost their precious children?

The Gorakhpur story is a wakeup call to the UP chief minister to get his priorities right, more importantly aimed at human welfare than that of animals and to address the public healthcare system of the state that lay in shambles.

(Published on 21st August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 34)