The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- How many have to die for governments to sit up to their own apathy'

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

“How many deaths will it take till one knows/ That too many people have died'” The terrible relevance of these lines from Bob Dylan’s song never ends. It was underscored when, not so long ago, an Alliance Air flight crashed when it was trying to land at Patna airport. It has been underscored by the manner in which Veerappan, smuggler and mass murderer, roams the jungles freely. And it has been underscored again by what has happened at the B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital, Calcutta. One finds these lines particularly relevant because they contain just what must inform our collective grief and anguish — a sense of moral outrage, a refusal to accept deaths like these and carry on with our lives.

We have reactions all right, but they are reactions of blind, mindless rage. Buses are burnt, officials assaulted, shops smashed — reactions which reflect only the propensity to savage behaviour that lies just beneath the veneer of orderly living in most of our cities. There is none of the moral questioning that must follow such grief, no questioning of what leads to this kind of tragedy. True, there are inquiries and commissions which are set up, but that is really no answer. They take a great deal of time, and end up making some trite recommendations that could have been made by the man on the street just after the event.

But one isn’t talking about specific failures or mistakes or anything like that; one is talking about something that applies equally to all tragedies such as the three mentioned here. Consider the Alliance Air crash. Was it necessary to have so many people die for the authorities to realize that Patna airport is dangerous, that every landing and take off is, in a real sense, a sort of miracle'

Having landed at Patna a number of times, one can readily testify to the truly frightening approach, as the aircraft literally skims over buildings, its wings almost brushing the trees which lie on the approach path, slams onto the runway and, while one’s heart is in one’s mouth, the roar of the reverse thrust and the hard braking bear terrifying testimony to the shortness of the runway. The planes stop, always, very very near the end, literally seconds away from overshooting the runway. When taking off it is just as bad; the plane becomes airborne close to the end of the runway, and the pilot has to climb steeply away from the trees and buildings, again, only seconds away from disaster. But does the skill of the pilots who make flights in and out of this frighteningly hazardous airport possible give the authorities an excuse to sit on their behinds and do nothing, which they have been doing for years now' Did it need the deaths of the passengers and crew of the Alliance Air flight for it to penetrate their skulls that there was something wrong with the airport'

After the crash, after the enquiry, the civil aviation minister realizes that the airport is a death-trap. All he needed to do, or his many predecessors in office needed to do, was ask one of the pilots. Now he asks the Bihar government to cut down trees, and do various other things to make the airport safe. Now — in the year 2002, when for decades it has been a horror of an airport and everyone knew that it was. What about all the other airports which are hazardous' Is he, or are his officials, interested in asking about them, and taking firm, quick steps to make them safe, or must some more people die before they do'

Take the disgraceful case of Veerappan. The man has killed over a hundred people, including 32 police officers and ten forest officials, over a hundred elephants, and enriched himself with crores from the sandalwood and ivory he has looted. And the combined police forces of two states cannot arrest him. He has kidnapped a leading film actor, and now a former minister in the Karnataka government. What do the police do' Nothing. They have been wandering through the jungles aimlessly for 25 years now — wanderings that must have cost both states a substantial amount. Except for a few of Veerappan’s henchmen, they have not been able to do anything to stop the man himself or his activities.

All that has now happened is that the chief ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have started calling each other names. Veerappan still has the hapless the former minister, and must be hugely enjoying the spectacle J. Jayalalithaa and S.M. Krishna are making of themselves. How many more have to die at the hands of this criminal before Jayalalithaa and Krishna decide to act with some seriousness'

And then the deaths of the children in the B.C. Roy Memorial hospital. It is not that patients in hospitals do not die; they do. And they will continue to do so, no matter how well equipped and staffed a hospital is. We all know that. What must, however, be a cause for concern and alarm is not this event alone, tragic though it is. It is the collective apathy infecting the whole system of healthcare in West Bengal, and in others. Equipment is bought and not installed. Buildings are not repaired, and are for the most part disgustingly filthy. Electric wires hang loosely, sodden with years of accumulated soot and dirt. Bathrooms cannot be approached because of the stench and the ordure spattered in front of and within them.

All this does not need government sanction to set right. But is there anyone who has the resolve, the steadfast determination to do so' Must it require the deaths of little children to have the authorities realize how dreadful the state of affairs in government hospitals is' And it may well be, chilling though the thought is, that even this will not make them act; they will need many more children to die before they do anything worthwhile.

In West Bengal the fault lies largely with the political alliance which rules the state, the Left Front, and within it, mainly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), though the Congress and the Trinamool Congress are now almost equally to blame. All of them have created the most intractable, violence-prone unions and associations of government employees that exist in the country. These have turned offices into centres of never-ending union activity, where hard work is considered a wildly funny proposi- tion, and where the prime mantra is indiscipline.

Other states do not need the planned destruction of institutions and the fomenting indiscipline that have occurred in West Bengal. They have all the chaos, disorder and inefficiency as innate attributes of their hospitals, schools and colleges. Recently in Delhi, a doctor who was fed up with a troublesome patient pulled out his revolver and shot him. Perhaps he felt this was the best line of treatment for that patient, more effective than an antibiotic. But it is, in a sense, symptomatic of the same disease, the same cynical indifference to the suffering of others.

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