Cheap lives

The death of close to 60 children at a government hospital in Gorakhpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh is a sad epitaph on the tombstone of conscience. It points to the inadequacies that continue to plague public health in the country and the total indifference of authorities to address core issues.

The state government and the opposition are engaged in the customary joust, lancing and defending by turns: The opposition calls for fixing of responsibility, investigation, and compensation, and wants heads to roll. The UP government in turn has adopted shameful tactics of diversion rather aggressively.

The larger issue remains unaddressed. The first thing that needs attention in the current circumstance is to prevent further loss of lives at such hospitals and to put in place a mechanism that should avert such mishaps in future. Investigation, supposed legal action and minor transfers and suspensions consume inordinate amounts of time in a nation where politicking has become a full time business for politicians, bureaucrats and others as well.

The time that legal proceedings take in such cases is evident from the recent ruling of the Madras High Court in the Kumbakonam fire tragedy. Ninety-four children of a school in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu had been killed in a fire that broke out on the thatched roof of the school July 16, 2004.

All the children who died were from the primary sections and the incident had the second highest number of casualties among fire mishaps in the country then. The incident also took the life of a teacher and 16 others suffered serious burns.

The high court recently suspended the conviction and sentence of seven persons and modified sentences awarded to two others. The course that law takes is long and arduous and eventually verdicts may not be in line with expectations.

The loss of young lives in the UP hospital case is immense and not something to play politics with. More paperwork, compensation will not help patch the holes in the system. The Kumbakonam fire tragedy had given scope for lessons to be learnt from by school authorities, particularly in schools that were functioning in congested spaces — to provide adequate safety measures and ensure easier evacuation if a mishap occurred.

Unfortunately, no such measure has been taken. Even now, countless schools operate in perilous conditions, endangering the lives of students. Similarly, tragedies at hospitals, most of them man-made, are one too many. They are promptly forgotten, and no permanent changes are effected in the working style or structure, leaving scope for future mishaps.

The UP hospital had reportedly failed to pay dues of Rs65 lakh to the company responsible for supply of oxygen, Pushpa Sales. The company had, on 8th August, communicated to the hospital that it would have to suspend oxygen supply due to non-payment of dues.

The situation of oxygen unavailability was therefore expected and completely avoidable — so also the loss of lives. Sadly, the UP government has said that the number of deaths is not unusually high, citing figures of paediatric deaths of earlier years. Shifting of blame and diversionary techniques will continue as expected. The matter will end up in the hands of investigating agencies and all will be put to rest.

Orissa had witnessed a tragic fire in one of its busy privately run hospitals last year. The hospital authorities had flouted all fire safety norms and even prevented locals from accessing the hospital in the initial stages to help victims. Thirty innocent people lost their lives in the fire.

A few months later, everything settled. Investigations are supposedly still on. The case is ongoing and it is ‘back to business’ for all concerned, except families of the victims who lost their loved ones forever. Investigations have just started in UP. This is India shining at its brightest.

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