The chief minister of West Bengal has hit upon a unique way of civilizing the government hospitals in Calcutta. In the last few weeks, the chaos that normally reigns in these institutions has reached a sort of mortal pitch. Shocking revelations of pervasive mismanagement, brutal callousness, corruption and lawlessness, together with a complete failure of accountability have become the subjects of intense public debate and agitation. This not only rocks the foundations of the state’s healthcare system, but also reveals what is profoundly wrong with the political order of which this system is a part. But judging from Mr Budhhadeb Bhattacharjee’s latest public statements, the clearest and firmest answer to all this is to banish the media — reporters and cameramen — from state hospitals. Mr Bhattacharjee’s justifications for guarding these hallowed precincts are manifold. No country, he has claimed, allows the media into hospitals. But even if the media were successfully kept out, would these countries allow the other elements that are allowed and quite freely nurtured in West Bengal’s government- run medical institutions'
The entry of the media into these hospitals has been necessitated by a crisis which has very little to do with keeping out or letting in journalists and cameramen. Mr Bhattacharjee has outrageously invoked standards of civilized behaviour and professional practice to endorse his ban. Had the matter not involved human lives and suffering, such an invocation could have been called comically absurd. Hospitals, Mr Bhattacharjee has declared, are not for wandering about in unrestrictedly. True, but the array of every form of life, human and animal, that wander through government hospitals render the chief minister’s strict words less than ridiculous. Cats, dogs, mice, pigs and assorted poultry find safe and nourishing haven in these hospitals; touts and thugs terrorize patients and their families at every stage of treatment; party cadre and unionists of every hue officiate and agitate with impunity. Why the axe had to fall on media persons in the face of this teeming vitality, all of it integral to the running of these hospitals, will therefore have to be worked out. Political agitation inside the premises has also been banned, the chief minister will claim. But will this ban be implemented with the same rigour that the other one has been clapped on' In the present circumstances, making a great deal of noise about keeping the media out not only deflects public attention from the real issues in this crisis, but also betrays a deep, though understandable, discomfort with the ideas of transparency and public accountability.