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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 14.03.08

Observing what goes on in a government mental hospital would be a good test of the work culture of the region. How the non-medical staff treats patients in any government hospital in West Bengal would provide a fine study from this point of view. But in the case of mental patients, especially women, the readings would be shorn of any doubt. The recent revelation that women patients in the Calcutta Pavlov Hospital are left without a stitch on them may be shocking, but it is not new. What may be considered more shocking is that the condition of mental patients in hospitals has been repeatedly exposed by NGOs, by the media, and objected to by doctors. Nothing has changed. Not only are the women left naked even when male workers and workmen enter the wards, they are beaten, tied up, starved, made to work and also deprived of the soap, oil and toothpaste allotted to them. There is an unsounded depth of cruelty, contempt, callousness and tyranny among the workers in mental hospitals endorsed by the establishment that allows this institutional abuse of helpless human beings to continue unchecked.

What happened in the Pavlov Hospital is a good illustration of this complicity. A doctor objecting to the way his patient has been kept is bullied by the workers till the superintendent apologizes to them. Then, in spite of the incident having been reported in the media, there is not even the pretence of a civilized treatment of patients four days later. Instead, officials feel that trying to bully a doctor who protested against his patient being left without clothes is a ‘minor’ problem. There is nothing wrong in women patients wandering about naked. Everything, apparently, is always at the washerman’s. The officials are irritated that the doctor had brought the patient’s relatives into the ward and that the media had got hold of the facts. Is this just the lack of accountability, gross habits of cruelty, greed and exploitation, or a frightening ignorance about the fact that the mentally ill have to be respected as human beings? Matching these responses almost exactly are the remarks of the director of health services. It is the fault of the visitors who entered the wards, she feels. The director appears to agree that what happens inside mental hospitals is no one’s business. The health minister, predictably, has asked for an inquiry and a detailed report. There is hope that no one will follow that up.