| Union minister Shatrughan Sinha at the ceremony on Saturday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
It was an occasion to herald a new future — the foundation stone-laying ceremony of an annexe building with 250 beds was the programme’s high point — but the past kept coming back to haunt the gathering at B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital for Children on Saturday.
No one — not Union health minister Shatrughan Sinha, not chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and certainly not state health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra — could avoid talking about this September’s multiple baby deaths at the hospital.
Sinha, invited to the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the proposed six-storeyed building which would house several super-speciality departments, chose to spend less than 10 minutes inside the hospital that was decked up to welcome him. He inaugurated an oxygen pipeline facility and an ultra-sonography machine.
The Union health minister insisted that he would not mar the “happy occasion” by dwelling on “the tragic incidents of the past”, and left after promising a substantial Central assistance to the Rs 11.5-crore project which would be commissioned by March 2005.
“I am aware of what had happened here. It was very tragic and should not have happened,” Sinha said. But health was a state subject, he added, after coming down from the dais where he read out a prepared speech. “There are certain limits beyond which I should not go, and cooperation and coordination are much more important than confrontation now,” was the diplomatic answer from a man known for straight-talking in his Bollywood avatar.
But he would “inspect” and “see for himself” what was happening inside the hospital, Sinha promised, before entering the hospital. In the brief period he was inside, Sinha “cursorily” walked through the outpatients’ departments, state health department officials said. “Leave alone the lacunae, even the recent changes made by the administration to impress the Union minister went unnoticed as he spent so little time there,” one of them said.
The administration had pulled out all stops to impress the minister. Officials said the “sole motive” behind the effort was to get an assurance about timely release of funds for the annexe hospital.
Sinha, besides promising to “consider” the state’s proposal for the 250-bed addition to the hospital, also unveiled Central plans to help the old and more reputed institutes in all the states with funds for updating of equipment and infrastructure.
In contrast, a large part of the chief minister’s speech was devoted to the September deaths. “We found that the infrastructure was more or less all right,” he insisted, although the state’s only paediatric referral hospital does not have facilities available at most diagnostic centres and nursing homes.
The only problems the hospital has, according to Bhattacharjee, are “indiscipline and lack of a sense of responsibility among officials”. That, he said, had been “taken care of”. The annexe building, he added, was being built to take the pressure off the “over-worked hospital”. State health minister Mishra agreed, but added that the best solution was improving the infrastructure of the other hospitals.
Meanwhile, Sinha’s muted reaction to the baby deaths have “disappointed” Medical Service Centre, a doctors’ forum, which had submitted an open letter to him on Friday. Spokesperson Tarun Mondal said the Union health minister did not take an “adequately strong view”.