Govt hospitals lack every health basic
Schools slap crime-blind slur on police
Dacoits strip Kali temple of jewellery
Dial an escort in Salt Lake
Buses, taxis sound indefinite strike alert
Station ransack sparks two-hour railblock

Calcutta, May 4 
Eight government hospitals in Calcutta and Howrah do not have �basic requirements� like oxygen cylinders, blood-pressure instruments and intensive-care units. Some do not even follow elementary procedures like recording a patient�s name or diagnosis on the bed-head tickets.

This has been revealed in the first-ever baseline survey of city and district hospitals, commissioned and sponsored by the state government. The survey, carried out by Blackstone Market Facts, forms a benchmark indicator for the quality assurance component of the huge Rs 705-crore World Bank-funded Health Systems Development Project (HSDP).

The five-year project, scheduled to be completed by 2002, aims at upgrading 205 block, sub-divisional and district hospitals in Bengal so that patients do not have to come to specialised hospitals in Calcutta for basic treatment.

The revelations of the study are appalling, even by national standards, leave alone World Health Organisation (WHO) specifications. For example, the emergency departments of many state-run hospitals do not have oxygen cylinders or blood pressure instruments. �It is not surprising that many people are compelled to sell their assets to get better treatment in private nursing homes,� said a government doctor.

The combined bed strength of the eight state-run hospitals in the Greater Calcutta area is 1,110, making them fairly large and important health centres. But none of the hospitals has a display system of the services available, of where which department is located, of bed-availability status or even of specialist-attended outdoor department days, causing serious inconvenience to patients.

Another glaring insufficiency common to all the hospitals is that not one of them has ever tested its water supply. So, the hospitals are in no position to say whether the drinking water given to patients is free from contamination. �Such checks should be carried out every three months by the public health engineering department on requisition by the hospitals,� said Bidhan Sanyal, HSDP�s deputy director in charge of quality assurance.

Interestingly, all respondents to a questionnaire, sent to the hospitals by the project�s section on health management information system, stated there was zero per cent nosocomial infection (infection acquired at the hospital) among patients admitted. �No hospital in the world has achieved this, indicating that the responses were not serious,� said a project official. Nosocomial infection rates, on an average, vary between one and eight per cent in every hospital.

The survey brought to the fore several other lacunae that have grown over the years. Many of the hospitals do not have observation beds in their emergency departments. Some of them do not even have a medical officer available round the clock.

Medical waste disposal norms, too, are not being followed. �Hazardous waste is not being separated in red bags, a procedure now mandatory,� an official said.

The findings of the baseline survey have been taken up with the hospital and district health authorities. Three regional workshops have been conducted, where representative doctors and other staff have been sensitised about the need for quality assurance.

The last was held in Calcutta a few days ago. �Our prime concern is the patient,� said Sanyal. �For this, the project has set 12 standards that need to be achieved between now and 2002.�

These include overcoming the deficiencies revealed in the survey, as well as acquiring high degrees of cleanliness, reducing new-born mortality rates and improving patient turnover benchmarks.    

Calcutta, May 4 
In November 1998, city police chief Dinesh Vajpai had made a pledge to the principals of city schools: he would clear the area near the institutions of drug pedlars and eve-teasers. On Thursday, he found himself in their line of fire for a promise unfulfilled.

At an interactive session organised by the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), principals of almost all prominent schools in the city hauled up the police for �persistent inaction,� despite repeated complaints to the respective police station.

At the end of the one-and-a-half-hour session, Vajpai refused to answer reporters� queries on what had transpired at the meeting and, instead, dismissed it as �just another session�.

However, the principals of the schools � among them Loreto House, St Xavier�s, Loreto Day (Sealdah), St James, Loyola High, Assembly of God Church, Julien Day, Hartley�s, International School and St Joseph�s � thought otherwise. (Picture on Page 18)

Heads of institutions like Loreto House and Loreto Sealdah told Vajpai that despite repeated pleas to the local police stations, no one had bothered to take any action against the culprits.

�The students are served with soft drinks and phuchkas spiked with drugs just to get them addicted,� complained one principal. �What have the police been doing about it?�

Sources said that Vajpai sat through the session sullenly, occasionally taking notes and assuring the agitated teachers that all their problems �would be looked into�.

Another principal told Vajpai that schoolchildren are afraid of going to police stations to lodge complaints against eve-teachers.

�That is all the more reason why the police should be prompt in taking action against these tormentors of schoolgirls,� Vajpai was told.

�We have identified a den of criminals near our school,� N. Chatterjee, principal of International School on Lee Road, told Vajpai, �We have also lodged specific complaints, but nothing has been done so far.�

Police sources said that immediately after the ICC session, Vajpai held a meeting of senior officials and instructed them to begin �Operation Clear-up� from Friday itself.    

Calcutta, May 4 
Silver and gold ornaments of goddess Kali were stolen from the sanctum sanctorum of the Sashan Kali temple adjacent to Siriti crematorium, in Behala, on Thursday.

The temple is more than 100 years old, and the fifty-odd devotees who visited it on Thursday were shocked to find the idol bare of its ornaments, worth several lakh of rupees.

The miscreants did not even leave behind the 20-ft-long gold-plated tongue of the goddess. A member of the temple�s managing committee said a silver crown, three silver kangans, gold necklaces and ear-rings are among the valuables stolen.

The main priest of the temple, Subhas Chakraborty, 70, registered a complaint with the Behala police station.

The door of the inner room of the temple was closed every evening after arati, he told the police. �The ornaments and other valuables were there when I locked the door on Wednesday evening,�� added Chakraborty, who lives just behind the temple.

Residents of the area blamed criminals who had �taken over� Siriti crematorium were responsible for the theft. �They run the show, extorting money from those coming to cremate bodies,�� said Madan Chatterjee, resident of Pasupati Bhattacharya Road.

The Mahesh Sharma gang operates in the area, the police said. The crimelord, who lives very close to the Kali temple, was arrested a few days ago on murder charges.

South 24-Parganas� additional superintendent of police S.N. Gupta said officers from the Behala police station are investigating the case. �Police are working on some leads. We hope to arrest the culprits shortly,�� he added.

According to priest Chakraborty and a few elders of the locality, the idol of Kali was discovered more than a 100 years ago by some people clearing a portion of the jungle.

A temple was built on the spot. The ornaments are said to have been donated by the legendary Bhattacharyas, Roys and Sens, erstwhile zamindars of Behala during the Raj.    

Calcutta, May 4 
Kalyani Choudhuri, a 70-year old widow living at CD Block in Salt Lake, is alone but not lonely. Whenever she feels like heading into town or maybe just have a chat, all she has to do is dial the Salt Lake Sayantani Services office.

This organisation, set up by a group of local women a few years ago, provides �companionship, friendship and emotional support� to the elderly.

The services are rendered against a nominal monthly charge of Rs 20. Besides that, clients are required to pay Rs 10 for payment for each utility bill. A sum of Rs 10 per hour is charged for escorting the elderly to cinemas, cultural programmes, weddings, social functions or other places.

�The charges are nothing, compared to the great help which the organisation provides to me,� says Choudhuri.

S. Banerjee of HB block, S. Pal of Mahavir Bikash and Shibani Dutta of CD block couldn�t agree more. For them, and for several other aged people in Salt Lake, Sayantani Services offers a new lifeline.

The service centre is the brainchild of Krishna Chakraborty, a resident of Salt Lake and general secretary of the organisation. While working on a research project in 1993, she discovered �that many elderly persons were quite well off, living in big houses with paid domestic help. But they led pathetic lives, as their children were away and they had no companions�.

Chakraborty joined hands with Rina Bhaduri, another resident of Salt Lake, to set up Sayantani.

The centre began by providing common services, like organising payment of telephone and electric bills for retired and elderly people living alone.

�Now, our field workers, who are all women, visit our clients regularly. We provide all kinds of services, like accompanying the beneficiaries to banks, doctor�s chambers and even cinema halls, besides organising get-togethers,� explains Chakraborty.    

Calcutta, May 4 
Calcutta�s private bus, taxi and minibus operators on Thursday threatened to go on an indefinite strike by the middle of this month in protest against alleged harassment by the police.

The date of the strike will be decided after a meeting of the operators at the Moulali Yuva Kendra on Tuesday.

The operators allege that the harassment ranges from demands for money to drivers being made to do sit-ups in public. About 28,000 taxis, 3,200 private buses and 1,400 minibuses ply in the city daily.

Bengal Taxi Association (BTA) president Kalyan Bhadra spoke to transport minister Subhas Chakraborty over the telephone during the day and sought a joint meeting with senior police officers.

�Subhasbabu told me he will try his best to convene a meeting on May 9 itself. But, this time, we are not going to accept simple assurances. We want positive steps to be taken and we want them in writing,� Bhadra said.

Plea to rights panel

The BTA is moving the human rights commission on Friday on behalf of two of its members who were beaten up by the police near Girish Park on April 24.

Bengal Bus Syndicate president Ajit Saha said harassment by the city police had become �intolerable... They want money from bus, minibus and taxi operators on one pretext or the other. At times, they demand up to Rs 200 to Rs 250, picking fault with a pollution certificate that is perfectly in order. At other times, drivers are hauled up for traffic rule violations which haven�t occurred in the first place,� said Saha.

The transport operators agree that it is high time the government �restrained� its police. �This time, we are serious. At our May 9 meeting, we will first fix the date of our strike and then meet the transport minister, if he calls us,� Saha said.

�We have attended countless meetings at Writers� Buildings with complaints to the government about its police, but in vain. Now, we have our backs to the wall. A bus-owner has to keep aside Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 every month to grease the palms of the police,� said Bhadra.

Secretary of the Bengal Mini-Bus Owners� Syndicate Lakshmi Das said minibus operators would hold a meeting on Friday to discuss police harassment.    

Calcutta, May 4 
Barely 24 hours after train services were disrupted by angry residents squatting on the tracks at Bisharpara, on the Sealdah-Bongaon section, Hridaypur, 20 km away from Calcutta and on the same section, witnessed similar scenes on Thursday morning.

The people were protesting against the shoot-out on Wednesday night on Hridaypur platform. The violence was said to be a consequence of a feud between two anti-social groups.

The blockade, which continued for two hours, was lifted at 10.15 am, at the intervention of senior police officers. Three pairs of local trains had to be cancelled, and nine Up and nine Down trains were delayed for about 50 minutes.

According to the police, about 40 men, armed with country-made revolvers, swords and other weapons, opened fire on the crowded platform and ransacked more than 50 shops in the vicinity.

Twenty persons were injured when passengers panicked and attempted to flee.

Suman Bhattacharya, an eye-witness, said the anti-socials had their faces covered. They forced the driver of a train, which had just come to a halt, to leave before the commuters could get off. As a result, a number of passengers jumped out on the tracks on the other side.

Subir Pal, whose shop was ransacked, said: �The gangsters ordered me to shut down. When I refused, they smashed all the lights.�

Another shop-owner, Bhombal Roy, was beaten up as he kept his shop open despite threats.

Police said the gang smashed all the lights on the platform, making it difficult for people to identify them.

Preliminary investigation revealed that the gang was based in the Nabapalli area of Barasat. They came in search of members of a rival gang. Two days ago, the groups had clashed.

Senior police officers, including additional police superintendent Parveen Kumar, rushed to the spot and questioned the shopowners. No arrests have been made so far. Kumar said: �We will comb the area in search of the miscreants.�

Thoughts on the Constitution: A seminar, titled �Thoughts on the Constitution�, was organised by the South Asian Regional Club on Thursday. Addressing the seminar, N.R. Madhava Menon, vice-chancellor, National University of Juridical Sciences, stressed the need for �change�.    


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