INDIA: Let them eat rasgullas

Asia Human Rights
September 24, 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

Death of children under its care is nothing novel for the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Post Graduate Institute of Paediatrics located in Cuttack, Odisha. It took 58 of them to die in less than 10 days for it to become scandalous.

Over the years, the Institute, popularly known as Shishu Bhawan, has recorded an alarming number of deaths against admission, and this is despite it being the biggest paediatrics hospital in eastern India. The numbers are worth a look.

The hospital recorded 1,522 deaths against 18,271 admissions in 2014, while 1,033 children died out of 12,683 admitted in 2013. In 2015, up to August 28, the number of deaths already counts at 965 out of 11,250 admissions.

The continuing spate of deaths should have brought the Institute ignominy long ago. It did not, perhaps, because most of the patients the Institute caters to are from the most disadvantaged and underprivileged sections of the Indian population: tribals, dalits, and poor people, i.e. those whom the country abandoned long ago.

A preliminary inquiry by the Cuttack district administration found that in most of the cases, the deaths involved underweight children or those with premature births. Both these criteria are endemic in children born in disadvantaged homes in India.

Once the news broke, 58 deaths in 10 days became one too many for the Odisha state government and it did pretend to jump into action. It suddenly realised that the Institute was severely understaffed and made a promise for more recruitment. The Odisha Minister of Health and Family Welfare also discovered that the Institute did not have a gynaecologist.

He finally lent the Super Speciality Institute a gynaecologist from a nearby medical college. The Minister also noticed that being a referral hospital for all paediatric care, the Institute was in need of more beds and promised the same. The state government was forced to set up a fact-finding committee, headed by Director of Medical Education and Training (DMET) Professor Prakash Chandra Mohapatra, and asked it to submit its report in ten days.

The committee found infrastructure deficiencies to be the main reason behind the deaths, and acknowledged the role played by administrative lapses by doctors. The committee has most notably suggested that the only thing that can help ease the pressure on the Institute is the strengthening of health care services at the district and block levels.

Alas, this critical suggestion is where the government's pretence gets exposed. Strengthening health care services will lead to demands for boosting the nutritional status of mothers and ensuring access to basic amenities. From where would a government that is so busy in resolving far more pressing issues find time for all this?

As children have continued to die, the Odisha state government is fervently competing with neighbouring West Bengal to lay claim to the 'rasgulla', a spongy sweet very popular across India. The Odisha state government is so miffed at West Bengal's claim of having invented the sweet that it has formed three committees, each with specific mandates. The committees consist of numerous government officers from the state Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) and Culture departments.

The first committee is mandated to find evidence to prove that the white soft juicy sweet originated in the state; the second will counter the evidence offered by West Bengal; while the third will collect documentary evidence to validate the state's claim.

The committees also have a deadline. The babus have to achieve all this with unprecedented efficiency, unlike those run of the mill stopgap pretend committees meant to defuse a scandal, such as those formed to inquire into deaths in hospitals, starvation, and other such lesser concerns. They will have to finish their assigned tasks within a week.

It is worth noting that the competition between the two states is on multiple levels. West Bengal, for its part, is itself notorious for similar child deaths in its public hospitals.

May the more deserving state win.

Incidentally, while the two states puff their chests and mark their territory over the sweet most favoured by children, the Union government has joined the pretence regarding the child deaths by sending a 7-member-team led by Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan to visit the Institute.

Odisha is, after all, run by a rival party, and the center had to do something, even if that something means sending the Union Petroleum Minister to look into a medical crisis, given the Union Health Minister is busy coordinating the Bihar election campaign.

In the end, whatever happens, rasgullas will be distributed.