Children have been dying in unnatural numbers in West Bengal’s only referral paediatric hospital. This is because of grossly inadequate infrastructure, which, in turn, speaks of criminal apathy and negligence on the part of those responsible for running this place — the medical and administrative staff of the hospital, who are directly accountable to the health ministry in the state government, headed by its chief minister. The state of this chief minister’s heart, metaphorically speaking, ought to be irrelevant to all this. The only things that matter are his taking responsibility for this situation, and the promptness and efficiency with which he remedies it. That the pain felt by the chief minister at the demise of these children, together with the politics of his belated condolences, has now taken centre-stage in this entire affair is a measure of the debasement of both politics and civilization in West Bengal. His ability to respond to a human tragedy with the right emotions, and before he has missed the bus, is hardly the point here.
The chief minister did take a while though to come round to this position, and the automatic reflex of his juniors was one of shame-faced defensiveness. Even now, the most visible measures being taken by the government and by the hospital authorities all indicate a closing of ranks, together with hasty damage-control — increased police presence around the hospital, active hostility towards the press and the punitive suppression of all staff who have given out information to the public about the state of the hospital. Until concrete improvements in the quality of medical service are clearly observed, this official response will appear just as uncivilized and ineffectual as the hooliganism of the Youth Congress and Trinamool Congress cadre noisily agitating outside the hospital. They are all part of the same political culture of self-defensive callousness which does not hesitate to use equivocation and muscle-power in order forestall exposure. Sick children are being denied treatment if hospital staff come to know that their guardians have spoken to reporters or appeared on television. There is still widespread fear among families regarding this. The chief minister’s statement of feelings also comes with a degree of deliberate fudging with respect to some of the publicized findings. The government claims the existence of all the emergency and investigative equipment in the hospital, contrary to what has been alleged. This may be technically true. But it fails to mention that there are no personnel to operate and maintain these essential machines. The chief minister will have to harden his heart, look into this hell and then do something — very quickly and concretely — about these dying children and their hapless families.