The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The outcry over the mess in hospitals reminds a surgeon of his trying time in government service. Every day he would walk into the operation theatre of a government hospital carrying his own supply of catgut because he feared that the hospital’s supply would run out even as he asked for it after a surgery. It was sheer luck that he never faced the dreaded situation, though some of his colleagues did, with terrible consequences for the patients.

Messrs Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Surjya Kanta Mishra, Anil Biswas and Biman Bose would have us believe that things are no longer as bad in government hospitals. In fact, they claim things have improved vastly. The proof' Seventy per cent of the state’s population go to state hospitals for treatment, they say, and most of them actually get the treatment they need.

So what is this noise about the mess in government hospitals' The chief minister and his party colleagues blame it on the media. No surprises there because all governments in India do the same in similar situations. The deaths from negligence of doctors and other hospital staff, they tell us, are isolated cases of aberration in an otherwise sound system. The media is alleged to have its own reasons for blowing them out of proportion. The usual conspiracy theories are spun, projecting the media as partners in sabotage games by the opposition and the private sector, which lies in wait for the prime property of state hospitals.

To anyone even vaguely familiar with the state of West Bengal’s government hospitals, the facts are very different. The rot in government hospitals is actually much deeper than the media has managed to capture. The sudden media focus on the issue came as an offshoot of the raging controversy over the judicial intervention to restrict rallies in Calcutta. The media may not have been as active in exposing the hospital mess if it had not seen the link between it and the death of a six-month-old baby whose family faced the twin blow of an extortion demand at the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital and a political rally that delayed their arrival there.

The truth is that far more avoidable deaths occur in the state hospitals due to a systemic disorder than are reported in newspapers. It is a safe bet that the media would not have taken up the issue so vigorously if the baby’s death had nothing to do with the controversy over rallies or if it happened in some remote district. If the picture is bad in the hospitals in Calcutta, it is infinitely grimmer in the districts where the mainstream media rarely reaches out.

And what is the picture generally like' Overcrowded, unclean hospital wards, where two or sometimes three lucky patients share a bed, the less lucky ones taking the beds laid out on the floors, absentee doctors, medicines perennially in short supply, the work-shy staff flexing their political muscle and the superintendent powerless to do anything to improve matters. No wonder that cats, rats and dogs roam freely inside the premises, occasionally scratching or biting off limbs of unguarded babies. Add to this the touts who hang out on the hospital compounds and charge their own fees for securing beds for patients or guiding them to a private clinic next door for a routine X-ray or blood test because the hospital machine is out of order.

The chief minister, the health minister and their party colleagues are right when they say that poor people still go to the state hospitals. They know the reason — most of these people simply have no choice because the expenses for treatment at private medical centres are beyond their reach. They are also right when they say that the state system is under a huge pressure because the demand on it far outweighs the capacity of its infrastructure. It is equally true that the government does not have the funds necessary to improve the infrastructure. To increase the charges would be too unpopular for vote-wary politicians. But to claim that the system is working alright betrays a cynical refusal to face facts.

It is because the government refuses to see what everybody else sees at the hospitals that it fails to take even small steps to mend matters. Many of such steps require no additional funds. Cleaning up the premises or ensuring that the staff, including doctors, attend their duty regularly and on time is no financial issue. Getting rid of the touts or unauthorized constructions on the hospital premises requires an administrative and political will.

If the healthcare system is not working, it is primarily because none of those involved in it are working for it. It is criminal negligence, but the political class that has created the mess is so stuck in it that its belated attempts to cleanse the system lack both conviction and teeth. Nothing short of drastic steps will help, but the question is whether Bhattacharjee is prepared to take them and face the consequences.

Judging by their responses to the media exposures, there is little hope for a change of the scene. Biman Bose wants the media to project the “positive”, and not the “negative” aspects of the state healthcare system. Even admitting that the media has a preference for the sensational, be it the glamour or the garbage variety, most sensible people would think that by exposing the hospital mess, the media have actually re- lived the days of good old public-spirited journalism.

Bhattacharjee, who has been able to create an atmosphere of hope for Bengal’s economic regeneration by breaking free from dogma and calling for a new work culture, slipped badly on the hospital issue. The fault, he said in typical political rhetoric, lies with the media, which he wanted to ban from the hospital premises.

He would have been more convincing if he used the media outcry to call for a general clean-up of the system. Uncontrolled entries into hospitals, even for the media, are unthinkable in any civilized society. But then our hospitals are no epitome of such a society. Given the rot in our system, the media simply cannot afford to overlook the inevitable story there, more so because it is often a matter of life and death. The chief minister clearly has got it wrong — the mess, not the media, is to be cleared from hospitals. Once that is done, the media will merrily find some other mess to focus on.

But the worst faux pas came from Anil Biswas, who advised the media not to rush to hospitals, but to wait for the governmnt to give it all the news. It shows an incredible lack of knowledge of the working of the media and also of the people’s expectations from it. The government “news” is rarely free in any country. Biswas may have heard it but it is worth reminding him of the joke about government news in the former Soviet Union. The government newspaper was called Izvestia, which means news, and there was the party newspaper, Pravda, meaning truth. Even Muscovites said there was no Pravda in Izvestia and no Izvestia in Pravda. All that the media report may not be the whole truth, but government news could be all holes and no truth at all.

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