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BUT BABIES DO DIE

Indian politicians love talking about normalcy. Listening to them while they do so is usually a surreally nasty experience. Brutishness, one realizes, could come in many guises. Mr Narendra Modi finds the sectarian violence in his own state quite normal. Mr George Fernandes was not particularly put out by the raping and burning of women in Gujarat. Such things do often happen to women. Mr Jyoti Basu had shown a similar lack of surprise after the Bantala rapes in the mid-Eighties. West Bengal’s current health minister, together with some of his comrades in the Writers’ Buildings, is the latest recruit in this gallery of the unfazed. Mr Surya Kanta Mishra has found “nothing abnormal” in 14 infants dying more or less unattended since Sunday morning in the only referral hospital for children in the state. Out of these, nine have died on Monday, and more than 300 in the last six months. Last September, 22 children had died in two days, followed by similar ministerial calm. The minister of state for health has put it with more of a flourish this time. He calls it the “periodic occurrence of multiple deaths”.

The B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital in Calcutta — the scene of these “multiple deaths” — has been carrying on like this for more than a decade. The most rudimentary infrastructure for paediatric healthcare is absent here — doctors, nurses, beds and every kind of emergency equipment. Children die here every day for the lack of something as basic as oxygen. The most preliminary of medical investigations cannot be conducted here. Yet this is a “referral” hospital, which has to admit and somehow accommodate whoever is sent here. It is not usually the blessed who end up in hell. The poorest of the poor come to this hospital with their children, and have to stick around in desperation because they cannot afford to go anywhere else. Children, the poor and the illiterate are necessarily voiceless, often without any sense of their entitlements from the services they have directly or indirectly paid for. There is therefore complete blindness and apathy regarding what they are left with. The structures of accountability, when they do happen to be activated, usually exclude the families of the dead or the criminally neglected. Medical and administrative staff at the hospital report to ministers and bureaucrats, while the bereaved endure invisibly. This time, one such family has chosen to agitate. One hopes that this marks a new awareness on the part of those who haplessly avail themselves of what these places have to offer. Ms Mamata Banerjee has also threatened to agitate. This is as obscenely inappropriate and self-serving as her opponents’ responses. There is something more unspeakable than mere misgovernance going on in a state where children are killed with impunity.

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