A fire ignited by a faulty air-conditioner at RG Kar Medical College on Friday prompted Mamata Banerjee to excuse the PWD from maintaining state-run health facilities and shift the responsibility to a health department that isn’t quite the epitome of efficiency.
The fire, a small one on the third floor of the casualty block, was doused in 30 minutes and Mamata the administrative firefighter was as quick in coming up with what many say is a new problem rather than a solution.
“The PWD is overburdened and so the health department will have its own maintenance wing,” she said after a meeting at Swastha Bhavan.
The chief minister admitted that there were “issues” regarding the PWD’s maintenance of health care facilities.
“There are short-circuits in ACs and problems in maintaining CT scan, MRI and other equipment. That is why the health department will have its own civil and electrical engineering wings,” she said, seeking to replace one needless administrative cog with an underperforming one.
The PWD is a colonial legacy that remains responsible for the maintenance of all government establishments. From educational institutions like Presidency University, where a net is the only protection from a crumbling ceiling, to health care facilities such as RG Kar, where electrical wiring is a test of life and luck, the signs of its callousness are everywhere.
So the question: what’s the point of PWD?
According to officials of several government hospitals in town, getting even routine maintenance done by the PWD was a cumbersome process.
An application first goes to the hospital’s PWD wing, which forwards it to the department. A superviser is next sent for an inspection and he compiles a report. Once the PWD agrees to go ahead, the application reaches Swastha Bhavan, where a team once again evaluates it and approves or rejects it. Then the same application with several notes of approval is sent to the finance department for sanction.
“It often takes six months to a year for work to start. We get tired of sending repeated reminders, verbal and written, and then simply give up,” said the superintendent of a medical college in the city.
The principal of a medical college said it took eight months for the PWD to change a tube light in his office.
Mamata said “overburdened” PWD staff were unable to cope with the demands on their department, leading to negligence. But she warned the department not to use it as an excuse. “Nobody has the right to kill. We took strong action at SSKM (after the fire in end-November). Here too we will take action if someone doesn’t do his work.”
Experts said making hospitals responsible for their own upkeep was the only way out. “The way forward for better services for the public is empowered decentralisation. Each government hospital should take care of its own maintenance with funds allocated by the health department. It is up to the hospital to decide whether they want to outsource it to an agency or to do it themselves,” said a B-school teacher.
Mayank K. Agarwal, a former student of the Indian School of Business who owns The Tea Bush Table café, said: “This fire demonstrates that unless we do things differently, history will repeat itself. I believe that the government needs to establish a strong system of audit of fire preparedness.”
Hospitals that need up to Rs 30 lakh for their annual upkeep sometimes have to make do with a fifth of that amount, which officials say won’t change if the health department takes over from the PWD.
“Just to get financial approval to change the wiring of an air-conditioner, it takes several trips to Swastha Bhavan. Will the change make the process any easier?” demanded a senior official of a state-run hospital.
Friday’s fire may not have caused much damage but officials warned of a bigger incident at RG Kar if the AC wiring wasn’t replaced. “An air-conditioner snag in the biochemistry laboratory on the third floor caused the fire. Routine maintenance could have prevented this incident,” an employee said.
The fire broke out in the pathology lab on the second floor, beside the lone staircase that wasn’t locked in a hospital with more than 400 beds.
“There is only one automatic lift, the rest are manual. When the fire broke out, only the automatic lift was functioning. That too stopped for around 10 minutes as power supply was cut off,” a source said.
Heavy smoke filled the staircase, making it almost impossible for hospital staff to evacuate patients through the stairs. “Not a single patient from the third floor upwards could be evacuated,” the source said.
Chief minister Mamata warned of action against anyone responsible for keeping hospital exits locked.