Public health

A political burial

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda at the BRD Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur on August 13. Photo: PTI

To counter the negative political impact of the tragic deaths of child-patients at the Gorakhpur hospital, spin doctors of the Uttar Pradesh government, led by the Chief Minister himself, use a three-pronged strategy of denial of oxygen shortage, action against doctors and Health Department officials, and the resort to communal propaganda.

ON August 22, when the periodic meeting of the coordination committee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was held in Lucknow, the dominant mood among the participants was of smug contentment. The participants—representatives of the Uttar Pradesh government, the BJP organisation, and the RSS—expressed satisfaction about having staved off a big administrative crisis without much of a political setback following the death of around 70 children at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College Hospital at Gorakhpur, which seemed to be acquiring the dimensions of a public relations disaster. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath himself did not attend the meeting, but both Deputy Chief Ministers, Dinesh Sharma and Keshav Prasad Maurya, were present along with senior RSS leaders Dattatreya Hosabale and Krishna Gopal.

The manner in which the deaths occurred and the reasons for them exemplified the ineptitude and misplaced priorities of the five-month-old Yogi Adityanath government while exposing the callousness ingrained in a political system led by a so-called spiritual person. The government and the Chief Minister had failed to look at the issues faced by the BRD Medical College Hospital despite Yogi Adityanath himself visiting the institution a few days before the tragedy. This oversight was most acute and criminal in the non-payment of dues to the oxygen supplier, which in turn resulted in the shortage of oxygen leading to the deaths. However, nearly two weeks after the tragedy sent shock waves across the country, the crucial coordination committee meeting came to the conclusion that the political damage had been contained.

Damage control

The damage-control strategy employed was not officially listed at the meeting, but the participants as well as a large number of observers of the coordination exercises had a clear sense of what these were and how they worked out. Broadly, the government and the BJP party machinery manoeuvred at three levels. One: outright denial of any mismanagement of health services, including negligence in paying the oxygen supplier. Two: initiating administrative measures, including punitive action, against the hospital as an institution and against some officers in the Health Department. Three: unleashing a not-so-subtle communal propaganda, playing up the pro-Hindutva and anti-Muslim stereotypes of the Sangh Parivar.

The three-pronged strategy was advanced by Yogi Adityanath and members of his Council of Ministers, and then, as is the Sangh Parivar’s wont, effectively picked up and taken forward by the party’s organisational machinery. It persisted with the argument that the deaths were not due to shortage of oxygen supply but due to the chronic spread of encephalitis in the region, which had taken a large number of adolescent lives over the past many years. This was stated repeatedly by the Chief Minister and the ministerial spokesperson Siddharth Nath Singh. When Yogi Adityanath went to the hospital after the news of the tragedy came out, he claimed that the government had paid the hospital in time and that it was the hospital administration that did not make the payment to the oxygen supplier.

Having put the blame squarely on the hospital administration, the second line was advanced through punitive action against officers and BRD Medical College Principal Rajeev Mishra. While Mishra was suspended after the news of the tragedy came out, more measures were taken even as the August 22 RSS-BJP coordination committee meeting was in progress. These included the removal of Anita Bhatnagar, Additional Chief Secretary (Medical Education), and orders to lodge a first information report (FIR) against a number of persons, including Rajeev Mishra and Drs Kafeel Khan and Satish at the BRD Hospital. All these measures were reportedly taken after a four-member committee led by Chief Secretary Rajiv Kumar submitted a report of the probe into the deaths.

Kafeel Khan episode

Incidentally, Dr Kafeel Khan was hailed, even as the tragedy unfolded, by a number of residents of the region as well as the media and social media as somebody who sought to mitigate the suffering of the children by taking proactive steps to procure oxygen. He was the person in charge of the ward where the deaths took place. However, the department was not able to procure oxygen as it had not got the money from the higher authorities to pay the supplier. It was in this context that Dr Kafeel Khan made efforts on his own.

Yet, when Yogi Adityanath visited the BRD Hospital, he directed the authorities to take action against Khan too. He was removed as the person in charge of the department. This was on the grounds that the doctor was doing private practice at a nursing home run by his wife. It is on the same grounds that the recommendation to file an FIR against him has been issued by the government. (He was later reinstated in the department with ostensibly lesser powers.)

A moot question doing the rounds in the hospital administration and among the people of Gorakhpur was whether there was a formal complaint against Khan on the grounds cited for the investigation. Indeed, the department can take suo motu notice of “private practice violations”, but for that too there is considerable paperwork that happens within the department. There were doubts whether all these were finalised before the investigation against Khan was announced. According to a number of people closely involved in the functioning of the hospital as well as some social activist observers of Gorakhpur, the Yogi Adityanath government turned against Khan because the desperate efforts he made to get oxygen got noticed by the media.

Talking to Frontline, a senior health official associated with the hospital said the thinking in the government was that but for Khan’s efforts the shortage of oxygen would not have become a public story. “He brought attention to something that otherwise would have been easily brushed under the carpet. That seems to be the primary cause for the action against him,” said the official.

Communalisation

While questions about the appropriateness of the investigation against Khan and the actual reasons for it are yet to evoke concrete responses, the “Khan episode”, involving both his actions and the measures initiated against him, was used by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits to divert attention from the governance failures in relation to the tragedy. As is the normal practice, communal propaganda formed the basis of these diversionary tactics. A clear sign of this could be seen in the Hindutva outfits’ murmuring campaigns that underscored the “possibility of a Muslim conspiracy” in highlighting the oxygen shortage. That Khan had been tweeting to former Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Akhilesh Yadav on various issues was also highlighted.

In the second week of August, other issues were also added to advance this communalisation project. Once again leading from the front, Yogi Adityanath called for massive Janmashtami celebrations, including in government institutions. Some police personnel responded by organising festivities in police stations. When the Chief Minister was asked about the propriety of this, he came up with the communal response that when he could not ask Muslims to stop offering namaz on roads during Eid, he had no right to stop the celebration of Janmashtami at police stations.

These blatant attempts at communalising the situation also evidently helped divert attention from the Gorakhpur tragedy as well as its fallout.

As Manoj Kumar Singh, Editor of the Hindi online portal Gorakhpur Newsline, told Frontline, in the social climate created by these controversies, follow-up coverage on the serial deaths became more and more sparse. “Child deaths were continuing even into the second and third weeks of August for several reasons, including deficiencies in the medical infrastructure, but the attention of both the media and the public was increasingly captured by other developments. The flood situation created by the massive rains in Basti, Gorakhpur and nearby areas in the third week of August also added to this distraction,” Singh told Frontline.

Apparently, the floods had become a point of “delighted reference” among participants in the RSS-BJP coordination meeting. For the record, the meet expressed concern over the tragedy in the hospital. But the larger agenda was indeed on furthering the communalisation project. A pointer to this was the fact that one of the key issues addressed at the meeting was the re-initiation and strengthening of efforts to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Incidentally, earlier coordination committee meetings had addressed specific governance-related issues such as the industrial policy of the Yogi Adityanath government, especially at the level of small and medium enterprises. But this time, the Ayodhya temple plan came up more prominently than administrative issues.

Governance deficit

Several bureaucrats in Uttar Pradesh and a number of political observers are of the view that this shift in focus is in keeping with the governance trajectory of the Yogi Adityanath Ministry.

“The government has been consistently slipping in all areas of governance. It came to power promising better law and order, but Home Ministry records show that the State is going through one of the worst periods ever in this respect. The much-touted farmers’ loan waiver scheme has come a cropper, leaving most of the farmers unhappy about the very concept as well as the implementation of the programme. Gorakhpur has exposed the government’s indifference to and callousness in addressing health issues. Thus, it is but natural that the political leadership of the government would want to shift public attention and that too in a massive manner,” pointed out a senior bureaucrat.

In the words of Rajendra Choudhary, spokesperson of the S.P., the Yogi Adityanath government’s one-point solution to all problems is communalisation. He believes that this will not work for a long time because people will see through it. But, as the participants at the RSS-BJP coordination committee meeting noted, the tactic is working for the time being and working fairly well for their purpose.

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