The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Before polls, health is fair
- Swasthya Mela budget up 20 fold in ‘feel-good’ times

Calcutta, Feb. 9: Delhi’s “feel- good” has come to town, spreading cheer among politicians.

What used to be low-key affairs involving doctors and patients have, in an election year, been converted by a central government directive into money-splurging occasions giving opportunity to politicians to get close to voters.

It does not cost the politician a paisa but makes the exchequer poorer by Rs 3.36 crore (in this state alone).

Till last year, the annual Swasthya Melas were conducted by the administration, which would set up stalls, ask its doctors to be present and invite people for free check-ups. Twelve fairs, targeting the poor, were arranged in the state and Rs 40,000 was allotted for each.

A change of policy signalled by the Centre has changed all that, much to the glee of the politician who, anyway, was preparing to hit the road soon.

The new rules give each Lok Sabha constituency a three-day health fair, with a budget of Rs 8 lakh, 20 times the sum allotted last year. Bengal has 42 parliamentary constituencies, making the exercise worth Rs 3.36 crore. Last year, the entire amount spent was Rs 4.8 lakh.

Politicians have grabbed the opportunity with both hands, making the most of an exercise funded by taxpayers to score political points.

Take, for instance, the health fair in Calcutta Northwest. The MP from the constituency, Sudip Bandopadhyay, is apparently out of favour in the Trinamul Congress because of his reported dalliance with the BJP when the relationship between the two parties had hit a low. When the leader was in the BJP’s good books, Union health minister Sushma Swaraj was slated to inaugurate the fair. But, with the BJP leadership now cosying up to Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee, there was no Swaraj on Saturday, when the fair was opened. Instead, a less important leader — minister of state Vallabbhai Kathiria — was there to stand in today, at the closing.

There were free check-ups but attention was rivetted on the dais, where the mood was definitely political with one speaker calling Bandopadhyay the “symbol of progress”.

In Jadavpur, where Trinamul MP Krishna Bose will take on CPM leader Sujan Chakraborty, the programme was held last week. At the inauguration at Thakurpukur, all three political guests were Trinamul MLAs — Partha Chattopadhyay, Paras Datta and Dilip Mandal.

In the rest of the state, where most parliamentary seats are held by the Left Front, the favour has been returned.

The politicisation of health fairs has caused much heartburn among the medical fraternity. “This year, the health fair has relegated the doctor — the most important factor — to the least important position. They have taken swasthya (health) out of the exercise, making it a mere mela,” said Malay Patra, the secretary of the Indian Medical Association’s Bengal branch.

Bose, however, defended the politicians’ presence. “All three political invitees happened to be from our party because the area is surrounded by three constituencies that are represented in the Assembly by Trinamul leaders,” she said.

“Doctors from the Institute of Child Health, the Swadesh Basu Hospital and the administration responded favourably, as nearly 5,000 people. The eye and ECG camps were frequented the most,” Bose said, adding that such fairs were necessary as they helped “doctors and patients bond better, especially in view of the dismal health-sector scenario”.

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