The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Buddha’s heart bleeds at last
- ‘get reporters to treat the child’

Calcutta, Sept. 4: “Normal” metamorphosed overnight into “appalling” as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee woke up to the damage that 48 hours of silence has done to his enviable record as chief minister.

Bhattacharjee said today what Bengal had been waiting since Monday to hear: “We are not insensitive to the deaths of so many children. It is appalling. Believe us, we are deeply saddened, because a child’s death is always painful. Please do not misunderstand us. We are also human beings. Even if a single baby dies, it is tragic.”

The impassioned appeal signalled the beginning of a stunning somersault by a government which saw till last night “nothing abnormal” in the death-spiral at the state-run B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital for Children. Bhattacharjee formalised the turnaround in the evening by visiting the hospital and spending an hour with patients and doctors.

But the action that followed the words and the visit could not erase the whiff of expediency that hung around the chief minister’s damage-control drive.

Bhattacharjee as well as his colleagues chose to concentrate on finding fault with the superintendent of the hospital, Anup Mandal — mainly for talking too much to the media — and created an ad hoc post to override the official’s authority.

Bhattacharjee seized the reins of the salvage operation after it dawned on the CPM that the government has bungled for the first time since he took over as chief minister in handling a sensitive issue.

The realisation hurt all the more as Bhattacharjee had begun his tenure by calling on the family of a student shot dead by dacoits, displaying remarkable sensitivity and a newfangled acumen to read the public pulse.

As Bhattacharjee and CPM state secretary Anil Biswas scurried to the forefront, both the brazen display of unconcern and its spearhead — health minister Suryakanta Mishra — receded into the shadows. Mishra and his officials had been quoting statistics and insisting that the hospital deaths were “nothing abnormal … it is not something which happened suddenly”.

Breaking his silence, Bhattacharjee told reporters at Writers’ Buildings that it was “far more important” for the government to initiate measures to reduce the child mortality rate than crunch numbers.

The damage-control exercise also got underway following a nudge from the CPM. Biswas said this evening: “The deaths are unfortunate. We are sad and we offer condolences to the bereaved families…. But there is no question of health minister Suryakanta Mishra resigning.”

The prevailing mood of the day was also reflected in the chief minister’s decision to reverse his stand on visiting the hospital. Earlier in the day, he had announced that he had decided against visiting the hospital because it could aggravate the prevailing chaos.

However, by the evening, the chief minister took a walk down the hospital’s wards with the media firmly shut out. During the hour-long stay, he ordered the transfer of all surgical cases to the nearby B.C. Roy Polio Clinic and advised the doctors and staff to be caring to the sick children and avoid talking to the media.

On the discrepancies between the versions given by the superintendent and the government on the hospital’s infrastructure, Bhattacharjee said: “I don’t know why Mandal gave such statements. Soon after I found out that information provided by the government is not matching with that given by the hospital authorities, I asked Surya whether our facts were wrong. I am told we are correct and there is no shortage of doctors, staff, nurses and treatment facilities at the hospital. We have no intention to suppress the truth.”

The censure was kept for the superintendent, who, Bhattacharjee said, had “failed to manage the situation properly”. An assistant director of health services will now look after the hospital administration. Two assistant directors, D.K. Chakraborty and Satyabrata Bute, went to the hospital. One of them will be named the administrator.

The chief minister said he has received a report of a committee of health officials. Sources said the report pulled up Mandal for not being able to handle the crisis adequately and highlighting only the negative side to the media.

Centre seeks report

The Centre has sought a report from the state government on the deaths at the hospital, adds our special correspondent in Delhi. Union health minister Shatrughan Sinha asked officials of his department to request the Bengal health department to furnish details.

n See Metro

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