SSKM jolt to privatisation push
She sails to conquer, so others may follow
Rally ban at civic main gate
Jadavpur students stay away
Streetlight scholar goes to school
Neglect pangs ail Behala hospital
Hotels strike back on clean kitchen move
Green cover drive in concrete jungle
Fresh leads in flat murder
Doors shut on dying man

Calcutta, July 23: 
The path to partial privatisation of health services is a pot-holed one. That’s what the government realised at the state-run SSKM Hospital on Monday.

The south Calcutta hospital witnessed an ugly tussle between its unionised Group D staff and new contractors’ workers as the government enforced another measure towards outsourcing of services through the private sector, this time in health, to “improve work culture and medical services”.

Workers of a private organisation were deployed as general duty assistants (GDAs) and sweepers on contract at the hospital. The “sons and relatives” of Group D employees, to whom this work was “passed on” for many years, opposed the entry of the contractors’ men and manhandled them.

The contractors’ men had to beat a retreat after being chased by the Group D employees, led by local Congress leaders Partha Roy Chowdhury and Chandrima Bhattacharya. They were able to join work around 2 pm under “special security” cover.

At Writers’ Buildings, Sujoy Das, director of health services, said the process of appointing private contractors had already begun at Calcutta Medical College and Hospital on July 15 and would soon be undertaken at National Medical College and Hospital. “The other hospitals will undergo this change in the second phase... Government hospitals have earned a bad name because of the attitude and negligence of the Group D staff,” he added.

The privatisation push at SSKM comes around the same time as all hospital management committees are being dissolved and fresh committees, comprising people’s representatives, set up. Roy Chowdhury argued that engaging contractors was the first step the government was taking towards “privatising” the hospitals. “Under no circumstances can we allow private parties to take over the work of the GDAs and sweepers,” he asserted.

Soon after the Congress crowd dispersed, a large police contingent arrived and virtually took possession of the “main block.” The contractors’ men then trickled onto the premises, escorted by the cops.

Trinamul Congress leader and P.G. Hospital Bachao Committee member Madan Mitra, who visited the hospital after the fracas, offered to “extend all cooperation” for implementing the government order, which he believed was “aimed at rendering better services”. But he urged the authorities to ensure staff members affected by the move were not retrenched. “The contractors’ team should include the unemployed kin of existing employees,” observed Mitra.

Superintendent of SSKM Hospital D.D. Chattopadhyay said: “We are engaging them in the main block initially. They will be deputed in other wings later.” There are about 250 Group D vacancies in the hospital.

A section of doctors is, however, sceptical of the government move. “They (the Left Front) first destroyed the entire infrastructure of state-run hospitals,” alleged Bijon Bera, secretary of Medical Service Centre. “Now they want to absolve themselves of all the ills they have encouraged over the years by privatising government health-care.”


Calcutta, July 23: 
On August 26, 2001, Sonali Banerjee will make a little bit of history as she boards a Mobil Shipping Co vessel as “the first Indian woman marine engineering officer”.

It will be a “dream come true” for the 25-year-old student of the Taratala-based Marine Engineering Research Institute (MERI), as she takes charge of the engine room of the 1.5-lakh-ton ship carrying oil.

“I was never interested in routine jobs and had always dreamt of going around the world,” smiles Sonali, after receiving her certificate of marine engineering officer from Ajoy Chatterjee, principal officer and registrar of Indian ships in Calcutta, on Monday.

Earning her spurs as the first Indian lady marine engineering officer was ”not easy”, admits the girl from Allahabad. “Initially, my father was apprehensive about my choice of career. After all, I was stepping into what’s known as a man’s world,” recounts Sonali, who joined the four-year B.E course in marine engineering just to “give it a try”.

But at MERI, things went smoothly and she completed her B.E. in 1999. “I enjoyed every bit of my stay in Calcutta. The city gave me the opportunity to understand Bengal and its culture,”

Sonali was selected by international oil major Mobil Shipping Company during campus recruitment. Starting her career in cruise with a six-month pre-sea training as a junior engineer with Mobil, she touched ports in Sri Lanka, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji and the Gulf. “The training period was tough. It was very tiring and recreation was limited to racquet games, occasional parties and surfing the Net... But the fact that I was the only woman in the 25-member crew wasn’t a problem. After all, I spent four years at the institute as the only woman among so many men striving to be marine officers,” says Sonali.

After a successful training stint, she came back to Calcutta to appear for the certification test at MERI, which she cleared with “decent” grades. “Her clearing the tests successfully will allow her to be in charge of the machine room at the operational level. With this licence, she is now eligible to join any international ship as an engineer,” explains Chatterjee, proud of his ‘star’ ward.

As she embarks on a career at sea, Sonali has her sights set firmly on the future. The girl-next-door is clear about what she wants to be — “chief engineer” of a ship. “For that, I will have to clear two more exams and complete another 30 months of service at sea,” says Sonali. She knows it’s going to be tough, but having cleared hurdles aplenty, Sonali is “confident” that she’ll make it one day.

According to Chatterjee, Sonali’s success has opened a new chapter in the institute’s history. The most remarkable fallout has been the interest and enthusiasm it has sparked among girls about the mariner’s world. “Not just in our institute, Sonali’s story has inspired girls to sign up for private marine engineering colleges even in Pune. This is a heartening trend.”


Calcutta, July 23: 
The main entrance to the city’s civic headquarters will be kept free of demonstrators from Tuesday. Deputy commissioner (headquarters) Raj Kanojia has told mayor Subrata Mukherjee that the step is an alternative to the imposition of prohibitory orders, under Section 144 CrPC, at Corporation Place.

Additional forces will be deployed on the day of agitations and demonstrators will be diverted to Hogg Street via S.N. Banerjee Road, where they will be cordoned off, said Kanojia.

In June, Mukherjee had requested chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to impose prohibitory orders against public gatherings in front of the main gate of the CMC building.

He said a group of people, on the municipal service commission’s panel but denied jobs, had set up a permanent camp next to the main entrance. “Will the government allow people to squat on the pavement along the VIP gate of Writers’ Buildings?” he asked.

Left Front councillors plan to rally in front of the civic headquarters on Wednesday to protest the deterioration of civic services.


Calcutta, July 23: 
The deadlock over a fee hike at the Jadavpur University engineering departments continued on Monday, with students boycotting classes in protest. They said the agitation would continue until the authorities withdrew their decision. Students of the engineering faculty will organise a rally on the campus on Tuesday afternoon to protest the revised fee structure, to be introduced next month.

Tuition fees of all three university faculties — engineering, arts and science — have been raised from Rs 15 to Rs 75 per month. Engineering and science students will be charged the newly-introduced fees for workshop and laboratory facilities — Rs 125 and Rs 50 a month.

Under the “rationalised” fee structure, post-graduate engineering students will pay a total of Rs 400 per month. Registrar Rajat Banerjee said, however, that students from under-privileged families will be offered free education. “We will ensure that no student is deprived of higher education because he is unable to afford it,” said Banerjee.

But the students feel the fee hike decision is premature. “The state higher education minister has already announced plans for a uniform fee structure for all engineering courses. How can the university authorities take such a decision at this stage?” demanded Abhijit Mondal, vice-chairman of the Faculty of Engineering and Technology Students’ Union.

Trouble has been brewing within the university executive council as well. A section of the council on Monday submitted a memorandum to vice-chancellor Ashoke Nath Basu, protesting the “stealthy” manner in which he and two other officials had left the campus “through a back door” during a student gherao on Saturday evening.

According to officials, a large number of the university’s students affiliated to the SUCI-controlled Democratic Students’ Organisation and the All India Students’ Association squatted in front of the conference room while the council meet was in progress. The students refused to leave until the vice-chancellor met them to discuss the issue. At around 6.30 pm, vice-chancellor Basu, pro vice-chancellor Ashoke Thakur and CPM leader and council member Shyamali Gupta, apparently, went “stealthily” into an ante-chamber to the conference room. Sources alleged that while the gherao was on, the three officials were “whisked away through a back door” by a section of the CPM-controlled employees’ union.

“How could the vice-chancellor and the two officials leave the room in such a manner?” charged a member of the executive council. Banerjee, however, said the vice-chancellor and the two others had left the conference room only after the meeting was over. “So, the question of them being whisked away does not arise.”


Calcutta, July 23: 
Every evening for the past few months, Sunny has been making his way studiously to the entrance of the Esplanade Metro station, sitting down under a streetlight and poring over some books.

On Monday evening, the five-year-old son of a ragpicker was back under the same streetlight — but in smart school uniform and a sparkling smile.

“School is wonderful... I want to join the army after I complete my studies,” beamed Sunny, refusing to take off his uniform, many hours after his first day at the Milton Day School, in Lenin Sarani, had got over.

“I always wanted to study and grow up to be like the people I saw around me,” said the boy, whose dream of going to school was realised on Monday, thanks to the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Society (RGMS).

Sunny’s father, Dilip Das, spends his day around a few tea-stalls in the Esplanade area. With survival a struggle, sending Sunny to school was the last thing on his mind. “How could I even think about it, when no one in our family has ever had basic education?”

But last year, when Sunny asked his father for books, Dilip Das could not refuse and managed to get hold of a few. Every morning, Sunny would sit down with one of these books at home — a makeshift shanty covered with a polythene sheet near the Esplanade Metro station.

In the evening, he would head straight for ‘his’ streetlight to carry on studying till 10 pm and more.

General secretary of RGMS Madan Mitra noticed Sunny one evening studying under the streetlight. He asked the boy whether he would like to “study in a proper school”. Then, RGMS members made the arrangements for his admission to Milton Day.

“They first wanted to admit him in lower nursery, but I asked them to consider him for a higher class,” said Mitra. Sunny was asked to take an admission test. “The principal said he was amazed at the boy’s intelligence and promptly admitted him in upper preparatory,” Mitra added.

Now, RGMS is ready to shift Sunny’s entire family to its office premises at 24, Chowringhee Road, to “give the boy a chance to study seriously and live better”.


Calcutta, July 23: 
Sixty-five-year-old Ranu Dev was screaming in pain lying on a hospital bed. Her son was running helter-skelter in search of a doctor.

Nirmalya Basu, an employee of the CSTC, had been admitted to the hospital by his colleagues after he complained of a pain in the chest. But there was no one to attend to him.

These are vignettes of the emergency department at Vidyasagar State General Hospital, in Behala. Equipped with 256 beds, 37 doctors and 56 nurses, the hospital caters to patients from South 24-Parganas. But a visitor has to cover his nose while entering, such is the stench in the compound. The place, according to local residents, is in a shambles.

Partha Chatterjee, Trinamul Congress MLA elected from Behala West, says: “The hospital is a picture of negligence. It lacks an adequate number of doctors and nurses, as well as a steady supply of medicine and fresh linen. The machines in the laboratory seldom work.”

The hospital has a vast compound with a pond, the water of which is used for washing cars by neighbours. The local people also do their washing in the pond, while the empty space is used by outsiders for parking cars.

Shakti Mondal, a local resident, says: “The hospital beds remain empty because patients dare not take admission. Even if patients come, doctors refer them to other hospitals.”

According to Chatterjee, the World Bank has already pumped in Rs 1.5 crore for the hospital but the state government has “misused the money”. “I have informed state health minister Surya Kanta Mishra about the sorry state of the place. He has promised to visit the hospital after the Assembly session ends,” Chatterjee adds.

Admitting the lapses, N.K. Haldar, superintendent of the hospital, said: “The shortfalls need to be attended to immediately. But since these problems were not created in a day, it will take time to resolve them.” Haldar claims that unlike any state general hospital, 300 operations are conducted here on an average.

“An organisation needs man, material and money, and Vidyasagar Hospital lacks all three. The public works department must pitch in to improve the condition of the hospital,” Haldar says.


Calcutta, July 23: 
The clean kitchen crackdown has hit a formidable hurdle: The powerful hotel lobby, backed by some local Trinamul Congress councillors. The pressure on mayor Subrata Mukherjee to stop the cleanliness drive against eateries is, apparently, growing by the day.

Jayanti Adhikari, Trinamul councillor of ward no. 63, has taken up the matter with the mayor, urging him to “stop harassing” hoteliers. She has also handed him a memorandum from restaurateurs in the Park Street-Russel Street area.

Member, mayor-in-council, Rajib Deb and borough chairman Debasish Kumar have labelled the larder raid “a meaningless exercise”. This, despite several food samples collected from reputed eateries having failed the laboratory test and others being hauled up for “filthy” kitchens.


Calcutta, July 23: 
The concrete jungle is set to don a green jacket. The Hooghly River Bridge Commission (HRBC) has taken up the largest afforestation programme to plant 1,000 saplings along AJC Bose Road and Camac Street this year. The HRBC has felled 78 trees on this stretch to make way for the 2.5-km flyover, stretching from Park Circus to Rabindra Sadan.

About 199 more trees on AJC Bose Road and 17 on Camac Street will have to be cut to complete the flyover by March 2003. The HRBC has urged the state forest department to take up the plantation scheme and promised to bear the expenses.

Vice-chairman of HRBC Buddhadeb Mukherjee had written to the forest department on June 13 and asked them to prepare a budget for the scheme.

The HRBC plans to plant 3,000 trees on AJC Bose Road, Camac Street, near Race Course and Victoria Memorial to maintain the ecological balance. The tree-felling committee of the state government, comprising officials of the pollution control board and state forest department, had instructed the HRBC to plant trees five times the total number felled by them.

Chief conservator of forests Shyamaljyoti Burman said they were trying to locate suitable spots to plant the saplings along the two roads.

“Planting trees in the city is a difficult job. Several factors have to be kept in mind. We can’t plant trees the roots of which can choke the underground sewerlines. Neither can tall trees be planted beside a flyover, as the branches can obstruct traffic,” said Burman.

The forest department intends to plant banyan, sishu, mango, shimul and kadam trees in the area.


Calcutta, July 23: 
The arrival of Sudarshan Singh Riat, husband of murdered Jyoti Riat, looks set to provide fresh leads in the case. Sudarshan, a merchant navy officer, flew down from Tokyo on Sunday night. But he could not be interrogated, as he was in a state of shock.

The post-mortem report suggests that Jyoti had undergone an abortion two-and-a-half months ago, which had damaged her uterus. The police suspect she had been to a small-time nursing home for the operation.

Some fresh leads have also been unearthed. Jyoti withdrew Rs 16,000 from the ATM counter of HSBC Bank on Lake Road, near her apartment. The money is missing. So is a diamond ring on Jyoti’s finger.

“Her relatives told us that Jyoti used to wear one,” said Banibrata Basu, detective department chief.

The victim’s nephew, Gautam, was released on Saturday after interrogation. But the police are not satisfied with some of his statements. “We recovered a leather bag from the office of another relative, Sanjay Riat, where Gautam went after leaving Jyoti’s flat. Gautam said he was carrying a CD-Rom for repairs. When we found the bag, it was wet. Gautam claimed it had fallen into a drain and he had washed it on his way to Sanjay’s office,” said Basu. Police have sent the bag for forensic tests.

Sudarshan was on duty on the high seas when relatives informed him that Jyoti was ill. On coming to know of the death, he is in shock. The police have postponed his interrogation till Tuesday.


Calcutta, July 23: 
In a peculiar turn of events, an employee of the Central Inland Water Transport Corporation found shelter in a private hospital after being turned away by several government hospitals in the city and shunned by colleagues because he had AIDS. He finally had to be shipped off to his native Port Blair, where he died early this month.

This insensitivity to people with HIV, 15 years after the first case was detected in Calcutta, comes at a time when about 50 infected persons from in and around the city have come together and launched the Kolkata Network of Positive People (KNP Plus) in a bid to form a platform for demanding equal rights in treatment, work opportunity and even education.

It was around April when P.K. Balakrishnan, a storekeeper deputed to the water transport corporation’s Kidderpore shed from its Andaman unit, started feeling ill. He had a cough and fever and had become very weak, all symptoms of TB.

The corporation’s medical officer, Dr D.P. Mullick, got him admitted to Islamia Hospital, where he was being treated.

But when blood tests revealed that he was HIV positive, the hospital authorities said he could no longer get treatment there, as other patients would create trouble.

“He was discharged and, for four days, we went from hospital to hospital to get him admitted, but the response was always the same: no bed, referred to another hospital,” said R.K. Bhattacharya, general manager (personnel) and then acting CMD of the corporation.

He, Mullick and two pharmacists, Jamal and Kasim, took him from Calcutta Medical College and Hospital and NRS to SSKM Hospital.

“We could not get a bed anywhere. Very discreetly, we were told that it would be difficult treating such a patient as the nurses were scared and would not cooperate. Even Belle Vue Nursing Home refused to admit him. We approached some officials in the health department but they were busy with election work at that time,” Bhattacharya said.

Finally, the Woodlands Hospital authorities agreed, after some persuasion, to admit him on May 5. He was there for 17 days. “The company management gave full support for his treatment. But there was a section of staff who were against his retaining his quarters in Kidderpore. He had to be lodged in the security guard’s room. Even here, a constant watch had to be kept on him, as the staff were continuously demanding his removal,” Bhattacharya added. The sick employee was finally flown to Port Blair, where he was admitted to G.B. Pant Hospital.

The senior official, who admits that he himself was unaware of the issues and plight of such patients before this, said attitudes had to change, especially among health personnel. “If this is the level of awareness and facilities available in Bengal, then a lot of work needs to be done.” He plans to involve various chambers of commerce and corporate houses so that workers, supervisors and managers know about HIV/AIDS and how it can affect productivity and families.

Meanwhile, Cipla, which created news by offering AIDS medicine at a dollar a day last March, and another company, Aurobinda Pharmaceuticals, have agreed to supply such medicine at Rs 40 a day for patients in Calcutta, specifically the 50 members of KNP Plus. Some industry houses are being approached to help finance this treatment.


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