It is difficult to say which is more sickening — the rottenness of West Bengal’s government hospitals or the arrogance and insensitivity that mark the ruling Marxists’ attempts to cover up their failures. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s defence of his health minister, Mr Surjya Kanta Mishra, whom he called an “asset” of his government, would ring scandalously cruel to the parents of Susmita Biswas or six-month-old Shabana Parveen, whose lives were snuffed out by a sick system. His defence mocks the sufferings of people who have little choice but to go to government hospitals for treatment. This is not the first time that the maladies of the state’s healthcare system have come to light so painfully. The rot was out in the open when more than a dozen children died within a few days at the B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital in Calcutta last year. The picture is even grimmer in the districts where the absence of medical staff and medicines has long reduced the system to a mockery. But, worst of all, it is the absence of a work culture that seems to be the bane of the system. Even Mr Mishra admitted as much when, in his budget speech last year, he blamed the mess more on mismanagement than on the lack of infrastructure at the district health centres.
The recent events have once again proved beyond doubt that Mr Mishra is not up to his job. Mr Bhattacharjee seems to be deluding himself, and the people, by refusing to see the obvious. He has sought refuge in half-hearted measures like the transfer of a hospital superintendent or suspension of some erring doctors and employees. He has cried foul over agitations on hospital premises. Given the nature of official inquiries, it would be safe to predict that once the public outcry dies down, the guilty will be let off without much ado. Unless the tyranny of their trade unions is put down firmly, the errant employees too would continue to hold hospital administrations to ransom. An incompetent and insincere government would be unable to persuade unwilling doctors to go to the villages or attend to their duties. Mr Bhattacharjee knows that nothing short of drastic, unpopular measures can stem the rot. But so deep is his government stuck in the mess that he has taken the half-measures in the hope that they would deflect public criticism. What he has done so far is worse than inaction; it is a brazen attempt to cheat the people. He has only one way of proving his sincerity in tackling the challenge — by asking Mr Mishra to quit. That alone may not bring the system back to health, but it could give the people some cause for hope.