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Guilty men of Gorakhpur: Yogi & Co. avoid blame for 60 deaths in 5 days

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 13 August 2017, 1:33 IST
Relatives mourn the death of a child in Gorakhpur (AFP photo)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has called it a 'massacre'. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj has labelled it a 'genocide'. And yet, the Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government continues to try and cover up the deaths of 60 patients, mostly children, between 7-11 August, at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur.

Many of the patients who died between 10-11 August are said to have choked to death, as the hospital ran out of oxygen. And while the government has now accepted that the supply of oxygen to the hospital was affected, it still denies that this was the cause of the deaths.

For now, RK Mishra, the principal of the college, has been made the sole fall guy for the tragedy. The government says he has been suspended, while Mishra himself has resigned, taking 'moral responsibility'.

But does the responsibility lie solely with him? What happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise during the 2014 election campaign that “no child will be allowed to die an untimely death”?

Two personal inspections, 60 deaths

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (PTI photo)

The BRD Medical College lies just about four kilometres away from the Gorakhdham Temple, the nerve-centre of UP politics since its head, Yogi Adityanath, became Chief Minister in March this year. Adityanath has been the MP for Gorakhpur for almost two decades now.

For most of Saturday, nearly 24 hours since the news of the tragedy broke, Adityanath remained silent. Even when he did speak, via his personal and official Twitter handles, he talked about how “encephalitis is a challenge”, and how it has been so since 1978.

In his address at an event on Saturday afternoon, he seemed to fix responsibility for the deaths on “lack of cleanliness” and “open defecation”.

Then, finally, in an evening press conference, Adityanath directly addressed the tragedy. Seemingly on the back foot, he requested for “facts to be presented properly”, while confirming 60 deaths in four days at this one hospital. For the record, this very hospital had seen 587 deaths in the same month last year.

He talked about how he had visited this institution twice – on 9 July and 9 August. His Twitter history shows pictures of his visit – clad in his usual saffron robes, wearing a mask and a cap, taking a tour, meeting officials, doctors and patients.

In another tweet, he stated that he had taken stock of the situation and directed doctors to take better care of the patients.

Now, the vendor who supplied liquid oxygen for the 20,000 litre tank at the hospital claims it was last paid in March, before a hasty payment on 11 August.

Since, by his own admission, the CM was at the BRD Medical College for around two hours, this has led locals to question how he didn't know about this. “How did he miss the fact that the hospital had not paid the oxygen supplier for months? After all, a hospital can't possibly rack up a bill of nearly Rs 65 lakh in the month between his two visits, can it?” asked a local whom Catch spoke to.

“That the vendor had been complaining over non-payment had been published in the local media. How is it possible that the CM, who takes so much interest in local politics, missed it?” the local wondered. “What was the whole point of those two visits if he did not know what was going on in the hospital?”

Adityanath, however, said no non-payment was brought to his notice. In a separate tweet, he claimed that the payment was released on 5 August.

While there is no clarity on when the payment was made, let's honour Adityanath's request and stick to the facts.

A day after Yogi's visit on 9 August, the liquid oxygen levels in the tank dropped drastically. “At 7.30 pm in the evening, we had to look for other sources, including some 50-odd cylinders which were available with us,” a doctor at BRD Medical College said.

“There was a lag in the time the pressure got down and the supply was restored on the evening of 11 August through other means,” another senior official said.

By then, for so many patients, it was too late.

Clueless ministers

State health minister Sidharth Nath Singh and Ashutosh Tandon, the minister for medical educaiton, were both dispatched to Gorakhpur on Saturday morning.

Both of them chose to stick to the initial government line – about how lack of oxygen was not responsible for the deaths.

Singh, grandson of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had once resigned taking responsibility for an accident when he was Union Railway Minister in 1956, went a step further. He actually began listing out the possible reasons for the deaths of the children, and tried to drive home the point that the deaths were 'routine', and not related to the paucity of oxygen.

UP health minister Sidharth Nath Singh (File photo)

Little seems to have come out of the ministers' visit, except principal Mishra's suspension, pending investigation.

Neither minister could explain why the vendor had not been paid since March, even when BRD Medical College is the only major government hospital in the region where encephalitis deaths occur every year.

Neither could explain why the CM, in the course of his inspections, never heard of the lack of payments to the vendor.

Neither could explain why the money was only released in the month of August, when the vendor's letter, dated 1 August, spoke of “multiple reminders”. The Chief Minister claimed he had given standing instructions to make immediate payments for emergency services. What became of that?

How did neither of these ministers in charge of health and medical education know that something was amiss in this important medical institution in the parliamentary constituency of the most important man in Uttar Pradesh?

Earlier this year, doctors at BRD had complained to a Catch journalist that the institution was suffering from a serious lack of medical staff, and that it was impossible to take care of the large flow of patients, especially in July and August, when water-borne diseases were wreaking havoc in the region.

If this incident is a benchmark, Singh seems to be more efficient as a spokesperson rather than a minister, for he trained his guns on the Opposition and said it should not 'politicise' the deaths.

Inefficient principal

Baba Raghav Das Medical College, Gorakhpur (ANI)

Then we come to principal RK Mishra, who has been suspended/has resigned in the wake of the tragedy.

According to an official Catch spoke to, Mishra is “infamous for his lax attitude towards administration”. How, then, was he never hauled up? In fact, he is reported to have gone on leave immediately after the CM's visit on 9 August.

“There was utter confusion and nobody really knew what to do, since he was away,” this official claimed.

If the principal had a reputation for being inefficient, why was he not shown the door after Adityanath's visit? “Probably he managed to convey to the CM or his close aides that he should be given another chance and would mend his ways,” this official claimed. “Or else, how would he survive when everybody knew of his reputation?”

National campaign needed

However, Dr RN Singh, who taught at the BRD Medical College a few decades ago, and is now famous for running a campaign against encephalitis, said it was no good blaming the state government.

“I do not buy the way health is rejected as a state subject,” he said.

In his opinion, such an epidemic can only be wiped out by a national programme, on the lines of how the country managed to eradicate polio and small pox. “They've made the programme. But no funds have been released, even after Modi came to power,” Singh said.

First published: 12 August 2017, 23:41 IST