Sixty new born babies died in a government hospital in Gorakhpur due to lack of oxygen supply. This is nothing but murder due to negligence.
It is ironic that just a couple of days before India completed 70 years of Independence, 60 children were smothered to death due to lack of oxygen in the BRD Medical College in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur. This is nothing but plain murder. But who will take responsibility? The Chief Minister? The Health Minister or the Prime Minister himself?
It is also ironic that the deaths took place in the home district of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. But the CM has tried to shift the cause from lack of oxygen to deaths due to Japanese Encephalitis. Whether it is oxygen or Japanese Encephalitis, Yogi should know this better that all of us because in the two decades serving as a parliamentarian from Gorakhpur, he had asked nearly 90 questions related to the health and family welfare ministry and initiated over 10 debates on the subject.
Yogi knew of the problem of the march of death that occurs every year in Eastern UP. Then, why did his government not take any preventive action?
It is paradoxical that the prices of tomatoes or onions can bring governments to their knees but not the deaths of defenceless children. Just because they are not voters.
In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the Gorakhpur tragedy saying that the country needs to change its ‘chalta hai’ (let it be) attitude to ‘badal sakta hai’ (things can change). But Mr Prime Minister, words alone cannot change attitudes. Let there be a proper court monitored enquiry into the deaths and let the guilty be tried for murder due to negligence. Unless the whip is cracked, no lessons would be learnt. Just suspending the medical college principal or the head of the paediatric ward are no solutions. The message should be stern, loud and clear to all – right from political functionaries to doctors and bureaucrats.
Let us examine the criminal angle. There is overwhelming to show that the children died because oxygen supply was snapped. Was it snapped suddenly? No. Pushpa Sales Company, which supplies oxygen to the hospital, had sent several reminders, threats and even a legal notice to the principal of the college to pay up Rs 70 lakh in dues. But the principal did nothing
On July 30, the company sent a legal notice. Nothing happened. On August 1, the company said it had no option left but to end the supplies unless the dues are cleared as the firm had to pay salaries and clear the outstandings with the banks. Nothing moved in the medical college.
But according to minister for medial health Ashutosh Tandon, the government released money to the college on August 5. Again, the principal just did nothing.
Just three days before the tragedy, three operators sent an SOS to the Head of Department of Paediatric Ward saying that pressure in the pipes supplying oxygen was dipping alarmingly. The authorities still remained unmoved.
Why? UP Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh had the answer. As against the demand for Rs 68 lakh for the purchase of oxygen cylinders at the hospital, the UP government released Rs 2 crore on August 5. But the hospital administration released payment of just Rs 11 lakh and that too on August 11. Why? “Because of commissionkhori” (the practice of seeking commissions), says Singh.
In other words, greed of money and unending greed for hefty commissions killed 60 children. If this is not criminal, if this is not murder, what is?
While Singh has pinned the right reason, his chief minister says the deaths were not due to lack of oxygen. The Yogi government seems to have cooked up 60 other reasons for the death of the 60 children and these include brain damage, cerebral palsy, low birth weight, sepsis and malnutrition.
Most of the babies who died were born pre-term with associated low birth weights. Many of them were suffering from sepsis and shock. But things took a serious turn and became complicated due to a combination of issues like hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, acute kidney injury, respiratory distress syndrome, hepatic encephalopathy, severe acute malnutrition, neonatal jaundice and pneumonia.
In short, what Yogi is trying to say is that these pre-term babies did not have a chance to survive anyways and the lack of oxygen was just a contributory cause, not the main one. What a poor logic. Yogi should remember that uninterrupted oxygen supply is actually the only lifeline for critically infected children.
But the truth will come out only if there is a proper and independent enquiry.
What needs flagging here is that encephalitis has been rampant in a 300 km stretch in eastern UP. The disease has been endemic to Gorakhpur for four decades and the BRD Medial College Hospital serves not just Gorakhpur but Gonda, Basti, parts of Bihar and the Terai regions of Nepal.
The present tragedy has woken up the Central and UP governments. After four decades of deaths of infants, the governments are thinking of setting up a regional centre for research in child disease at a cost of Rs 85 crore. This is something that the centre should have done decades ago to prevent deaths.
Apart from this there is a need for setting up a full-fledged viral research centre too considering rampant run of Japanese Encephalitis.
What Yogi’s backyard Gorakhpur needs is just not high-end research centres; what is needed is some large scale clean up. The truth is that the starting point of the afflictions that affect new born in this area of UP is pre-term delivery, low weight – two issues that can be monitored right from conception if the primary care centres functioned properly. The area is also infamous for putrid water, poor sanitation, mosquito breeding and even maltreatment by quacks due to lack of proper medical facilities at the primary level.
No matter which governments come and go, Gorakhpur and adjoining areas in Eastern UP have been perennially suffering from lack of sanitation, open drains and waterlogged streets resulting in a spike Japanese encephalitis cases. The need of the hour is an extensive door-to-door immunisation programme, where health officers reach out to people rather than the public scrambling to hospitals for basic treatment.
There is also this `chalta hai’ attitude in UP. A handful of hospital deaths are treated as normal and no questions are asked and the administration becomes careless. Monitoring of hospital management is rarely looked at by anyone besides the hospital.
No one knows this better than Yogi himself and he did not act. Lok Sabha records show that Yogi Adityanath, in his capacity as local MP, had raised the issue of children dying in Gorakhpur at least 20 times between the years 2003 and 2014. The issues he raised ranged from limitations of infrastructure at the BRD Medical College and Hospital to the need of an AIIMS there; the importance of timely vaccination and the lack of any concerted action by the state or the Centre in tackling the encephalitis epidemic.
His interventions led to debates in the Parliament on 12 occasions. So he knew that Gorakhpur was sitting on a health bomb with a short fuse. Why did he not act?
Just rewind to July 13, 2009. Yogi told parliament that “Japanese encephalitis is a kind of epidemic and starts to wreak havoc after rains after June 15 and continues till October November. During NDA period, for 4-5 years, this area was adopted for vaccination. It is sad this this year 98 deaths have already happened (till July 2009) and neither vaccination has been carried out nor any concrete steps have been taken for eradication of this disease…it has been 31 years and a large part of Eastern UP and Western Bihar are in the grip of an epidemic and every year thousands of children die because of this disease.”
He said that the number of deaths in BRD Medical College alone stood at: 937 in 2005; 431 in 2006; 516 in 2007; 410 in 2008 and 98 in 2009 until July.
Between 2004 and 2017, Japanese Encephalitis has resulted into 15,315 deaths of which UP alone has seen for 8,267 deaths or 54 per cent of the total.
Apart from child deaths, it is UP’s paralysed healthcare system that is on the death bed gasping for some financial and infrastructural `oxygen’.
There are hundreds of community health centres (CHC) without a specialist and no provision for emergency services; primary health centres are sometimes run by a pharmacist unqualified to treat patients; a sub-centre operates only once in a month. Because of the failure at the primary level, the poor are forced to flood the BRD Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur only to see their kids die.
The poor kids are fated to die because in India, there is no space for mourning, only for recrimination. Little wonder that politicians of all hues have jumped in to blame Yogi and the dark history of healthcare that UP is infamous for.
We can reach the Moon and Mars, but in the poor and dirty backyard of Gorakhpur, we do not have the will power or the urgency to fight a common epidemic like Japanese Encephalitis or, worse, corruption at all levels.
On this Independence Day, can we be proud of our achievements? Sorry, the answer is a big `no’ from Gorakhpur.
And the only way to wipe the tears of every mother who lost her child in BRD Hospital recently is to file criminal complaints and bring the guilty to books. Will the Yogi Sarkar do this?