It is a trifle odd that there is no Bengali saying quite synonymous with missing the bus since West Bengal misses the bus of opportunities more often than not. When the Union health minister, Ms Sushma Swaraj, announced in Calcutta that the Medical College will be upgraded to the status of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, most people overlooked a significant piece of history. When the idea of the AIIMS was first mooted in the Nehruvian era, the offer came first to Calcutta. When the then West Bengal government spurned the offer, the AIIMS went to New Delhi and Chandigarh. The rest of the story is depressing but bears repetition. Health services in West Bengal have deteriorated to the extent of becoming a scandal. The Medical College, once a premier institution in terms of the education it provided and the high-standard medical care that was available, has now been reduced to a place where nightmarish conditions prevail. Other medical colleges have shared a similar fate. Gross neglect and irresponsible politicization of doctors and the staff have destroyed these institutions. There is no way, as recent experience has amply demonstrated, of reforming these medical colleges and hospitals. The cancer is too deep rooted. It is possible, of course, that even if an AIIMS had been established in Calcutta in the Fifties, it would have undergone the same decline as other institutions in West Bengal. But may be it wouldn’t have. The myopia of political leaders foreclosed the option.
The chance of setting up an AIIMS has come round again. But this time the proposal is utterly impractical. The health secretary of West Bengal announced that the Medical College would be upgraded with funds and resources promised by Ms Swaraj to match the AIIMS in New Delhi. The impracticality lies in the conditions that prevail in the Medical College. The disease there is beyond remedy. If Ms Swaraj has money to spare and if she is feeling particularly generous towards West Bengal, let her provide money and resources for an entirely new institution at par with AIIMS. Any project that aims at tinkering with the existing system and expects to improve it will be self-defeating. Money cannot raise Lazarus. Bengalis are forever quoting the saying that what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. This may have been true a very long time ago. Today, the opposite has the ring of truth. West Bengal is now forever catching up with the rest of India. West Bengal is a runner in a handicap race. Its future will never catch up with India’s present.