Azeem Khan, a carpenter from Parbhani district, found himself in a state of shock at Nanded’s Shankarrao Chavan government medical College and hospital. He had just brought his three-day-old son to the hospital. Doctors in Parbhani had informed him that the baby had ingested contaminated water during the caesarean section operation and required ventilator support. Consequently, Azeem undertook an 80-kilometre journey from Parbhani to Nanded’s hospital, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, his misfortune didn’t end there. The hospital was grappling with a dire shortage of medical supplies, which ultimately claimed the life of his newborn. Azeem was devastated. “I don’t know what to tell my wife Nagma now. She will collapse listening to this.” Azeem’s anger was palpable as he said, “The government is responsible for the death of my son.”
This tragic incident was part of a larger crisis, as it was accompanied by 34 other deaths at Nanded’s government medical college and hospital within a span of 48 hours on October 2 and 3. Additionally, 14 people lost their lives at the government medical college in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (formerly Aurangabad), further exposing the State’s struggling healthcare system. The tri-party government of Maharashtra was already facing severe criticism from all quarters, and the central government had initiated an inquiry into the medical colleges’ reports on these deaths.
A public health crisis
Nanded’s medical college boasts a 600-bed hospital that serves patients from the bordering districts of Maharashtra’s Marathwada and Vidarbha regions as well as Telangana. The local media had consistently reported on the inadequacies of healthcare facilities at the college. However, on September 30 and October 1, the situation escalated beyond the norm. A severe shortage of both medical supplies and personnel had precipitated this tragedy. Within 48 hours, a total of 35 individuals, including 16 children and 19 adults, had succumbed to the dire conditions within the hospital.
As the crisis unfolded, another 14 patients died within 24 hours at Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar’s government medical college on October 3, sending shockwaves throughout the State. These deaths elicited reactions from all corners of the country, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi expressing his dismay by stating, “The BJP government has thousands of crores of rupees for publicity, but don’t they have enough money for children’s medicines?” Nationalist Congress Party Chief Sharad Pawar attributed the incidents to the State government’s lackadaisical approach following the deaths at Kalawa hospital, where 18 individuals had died in 24 hours on August 13. While an inquiry had been announced by the State government, the official report was still pending. Media reports suggested that the inquiry committee had found no one guilty in the case.
Following the Nanded incident, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde asserted that there was an adequate quantity of medicines and medical staff available. “The issue is serious, and the government has taken cognizance of it. We will find out the reason,” Shinde told the media. However, hospital records contradicted his claims, revealing a 42 per cent vacancy in medical staff positions at Nanded’s government medical college and hospital. This shortage encompassed various departments, including general medicine, psychiatry, paediatrics, ophthalmology, urology, and orthopaedics.
During his visit to the hospital after the incident, the State’s Medical Education Minister Hasan Mushrif acknowledged the strain on resident doctors due to staff shortages. He said, “There is a shortage of doctors at medical colleges. Before recruiting for government posts, we can go on a contract basis to fill the vacancies.” He also assured the public that each death in the hospital would be thoroughly investigated, with strict action taken against any staff mistakes.
Meanwhile, another controversy arose when Shiv Sena Member of Parliament from Hingoli, Hemant Patil, compelled the acting dean of Nanded college to clean a dirty toilet. S.R. Wakode, the acting dean, was present during Patil’s visit, during which Patil handed him a broom and instructed him to clean the toilet. Patil defended his action by highlighting the poor sanitation conditions in the hospital. “The government spends crores of rupees on cleaning, but toilets were locked and ugly in the hospitals. Water was not available for the toilets,” he said.
Wakode received support from the Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors (MARD), the parent body of resident doctors at medical colleges. Following a complaint filed by Wakode, Patil was booked under IPC sections 353, 500, and 506, as well as the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Bhim Army Maharashtra leader Rahul Pradhan demanded Patil’s arrest in this matter.
It has also come to light that the authorities at the Nanded medical college failed to purchase medicines despite having Rs.4 crore in funds at their disposal. Mushrif explained that the ongoing probe would shed light on why the hospital authorities remained inactive and did not procure the necessary medicines. He stated, “If you have been allocated funds, the procurement of medicines should have been carried out. If there were any legal issues or rules, communication should have been established with the department’s directorate. However, failing to utilise the allocated funds in such a situation is not the correct approach.”
The opposition in Maharashtra seized the opportunity to criticise the State government over the issue. Opposition leader in the State Assembly, Vijay Wadettiwar, visited the Nanded hospital, while the opposition leader in the State Legislative Council, Ambadas Danve, visited the Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar hospital. Vadettiwar expressed his concern: “The lives of poor individuals hold no value in the current regime of Maharashtra. Only the rich can survive in this government because the leader in this government understands only one language, and that is money.”
This stark contrast in healthcare governance between the current administration and the one led by Uddhav Thackeray during the COVID-19 pandemic garnered attention on social media. Some individuals even commented on the perceived differences between the Thackeray and Shinde governance models. Senior political journalist Jaydeo Dole noted, “People are now even saying that thank God, Shinde was not CM during COVID-19. Had he been there, Maharashtra would have seen much more disaster.”