The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Court asks govt to pay health price

Calcutta, Dec. 17: The high court today directed the government to “bear the burden of compensation” in future for every citizen who suffers because of the state health department’s “lack of sensitivity” and “lackadaisical approach”.

A division bench of Chief Justice A.K. Mathur and Justice A.K. Bannerjee told the government that it was free to recover the compensation from the salary of those found responsible so that a “message went out” to the health employees.

The court was responding to a public interest litigation filed by Congress MP from Behrampore Adhir Choudhury. The petition had ascribed distinct political reasons to the series of child-deaths (the petitioner quoted a figure of 95) in Murshidabad in May.

Besides inadequate infrastructure and man power, the district was suffering for voting the Opposition Congress to power in the just-concluded panchayat polls, Choudhury said.

Setting a precedence, the court asked the government to compensate 45 bereaved families (Rs 10,000 each) from money taken out of the pockets of those found guilty. The court also set up a high-powered committee to probe the deaths and fix responsibility.

“The total lack of sensitivity… speaks volumes about the thorough negligence and it is high time that the state” made its health-administration more sensitive, it added.

“Action has to be initiated from the very top and those responsible for dereliction of duty should be hauled up so that message goes to doctors and nursing staff that government means business,” the court said, suggesting the action (compensation) on its own. “This will give a message to the (entire) department,” it added.

Brushing aside the not-guilty plea made by two of the senior-most government advocates — advocate-general Balai Ray and high court government pleader Rabilal Maitra — the division bench cited a series of faults in the healthcare system. Ironically, most of the charges were referred to by chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee when he promised a more “sensitive” administration after being returned to power in May 2001.

Accusing the health department of not being “sincere in its approach”, the judges “deprecated its lackadaisical approach”. “The malady is still deeper… and the entire healthcare system… (has become) the greatest casualty,” the verdict said, referring to the chain of incidents, from a man dying of burns in a ward to a newborn being bitten by a cat and fungus in saline-bottles.

In its reply to Choudhury’s allegations, the government produced a report of a committee constituted to probe the deaths. The allegations are baseless, the government said, adding that 45 deaths were “officially” recorded. There were some lapses but no political reason should be read into the chain of deaths, it added.

The time taken to identify the disease that claimed the lives was “considerable”, the judges said, adding that prima facie, the administration was not prepared to tackle the situation.

Refusing to go into the political issue, the judges found the government guilty of not being “vigilant enough to take appropriate emergency action”.

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