Tamil Nadu

Mute victims

Print edition : February 19, 2016

The main door of SVS Medical College of Yoga and Naturopathy at Bangaram in Villupuram district after it was sealed by revenue officials. Photo: By Special Arrangement

E. Saranya. Photo: By Special Arrangement

T. Monisha. Photo: By Special Arrangement

V. Priyanka. Photo: By Special Arrangement

S. Vasuki, chairperson of SVS Medical College, when she surrendered before the Judicial Magistrate in Tambaram near Chennai. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

Students of the college staging a demonstration in front of the general hospital in Villupuram on January 24. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The death of three girl students in Tamil Nadu raises serious questions about the way self-financing professional colleges run without the necessary infrastructure and teaching staff and the treatment they mete out to students.

THERE is an unusually large police presence near Kallakuruchi on the Chennai-Salem highway in Tamil Nadu, though there is no discernible activity except the speeding traffic. Half a kilometre off the main road, at Bhangaram village, a four-storey structure stands amid paddy fields. The building, which has been sealed off, is SVS Medical College of Yoga and Naturopathy and Research Institute. Three girl students of the college allegedly committed suicide on January 23 by jumping into a nearby well. The girls—E. Saranya of Kancheepuram and V. Priyanka of Tiruvarur, both 18, and T. Monisha of Chennai, 19—had lower-middle-class backgrounds. The police said the girls had, in a signed suicide note, cited “torture” by the management (when they complained of financial exploitation) as the reason for the extreme step and hoped it would force the authorities to take action against the college chairman.

The police arrested Kalanithi, the college principal, and Sudhakar Varma, son of S. Vasuki, the college administrator, in Kallakurichi. They were produced before a local court and remanded in judicial custody. Vasuki surrendered before a court in Tambaram near Chennai.

The self-financing college, which is an affiliate of Dr MGR Medical University, has been closed, and the fate of the students who had enrolled in it hangs in the balance. The local authorities did nothing to prevent matters from getting worse at the college. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government has maintained a silence over the incident, and by and large the political parties have not said anything against the college administration. This is hardly surprising because almost every politician of note in the State, barring those belonging to the Left parties, runs professional colleges.

Meanwhile, students of the college, who have been agitating for the past few years in front of the District Collector’s office in Villupuram, shifted the venue of their protest to Chennai. On January 28, they attempted to stage a protest in front of Dr MGR Medical University in Chennai. They were “picked up” by the police as a precautionary measure. In Chennai, where the police resort to Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure at will, protests are allowed only at one venue, the Chepauk stadium. If protests are staged anywhere else, the chances are that the protesters would be remanded in judicial custody if the agitation is peaceful and in police custody if it turns violent.

The students’ agitation serves as an eye-opener to the manner in which government and quasi-government agencies function in the State where higher education mafias operate with impunity, bending every rule to make money. The government agencies more often than not help the offenders.

Inspection report

The opening paragraph of the report of the latest inspection (carried out on December 30, 2015) at SVS Medical College reads: “On reaching the institution at 10:30 a.m., we were received by the principal, Dr Kalanithi, and chairman, Mrs Vasuki, of SVS Yoga and Naturopathy Medical College, Kallakuruchi. On requesting for the attendance register of faculty members, the college authorities were unable to do so.”

The report adds: “On a visit to the out-patient department, it was found that there were a few patients waiting to see the doctor at around 11:30 a.m. However, the college authorities were unable to produce a proper out-patient register as evidence of having seen patients in the out-patient department.”

The report was signed by Professor Nalli R. Uvaraj, Dr M. Saravanan and Dr R.S. Himeswari, senior professors of colleges affiliated to Dr MGR Medical University, and Dr R. Raj Bharath of the medical university. The inspection committee highlighted several issues, each of which could be a reason for the immediate closure of the college. It said: “Even after staying in the institution for more than four hours, the college authorities were unable to produce before the inspection team the faculty members of the institution. Hence, personal verification of faculty members could not be performed…. In spite of repeated requests to the college authorities to produce the previous inspection files, they were unable to do so…. The hospital authorities were unable to produce any inpatient register or case studies as an evidence of treating patients as in-patients…. Casualty with 12 beds was not found to be fully equipped.” The list goes on.

Conveying a sense of urgency, the team prepared a hand-written report for submission to the university Registrar the same day. The inspection report, which Frontline was able to access through a secondary source, mentions December 31, 2015, as the day of receipt of the report at the Registrar’s office. A seal affixed by the Assistant Registrar (Affiliations) shows that the file reached his office on January 18. In short, it took 18 days for the file to travel across a few rooms in the university building.

This was not the first instance of a complaint against SVS Medical College. There were similar complaints when Mayilvahanam Natarajan was the Vice-Chancellor of the university, said an official familiar with the issue. Mayilvahanam retired in 2012 after a three-year term. He was succeeded by D. Shantharam in end-2012. In 2015, S. Geethelakshmi, a former Director of Medical Education, was chosen to head the university.

Although the issues pertaining to the college came into focus repeatedly through students, parents and routine administrative channels, none of the Vice-Chancellors took note. Parents and students Frontline spoke to said whenever they complained to any administrative authority, the news of the complaint travelled back to the college. It appears that the college authorities were able to run the institution without creating the required infrastructure by merely having enough collaborators in the right places—from the level of the district administration to the university to the government of the day. SVS Medical College began its operations in 2008 when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was in power and has thrived under AIADMK rule.

In 2012, the college administration approached the Madras High Court seeking a reinspection by the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) and grant of permission to run courses in homeopathy. The State government had granted a no-objection certificate, which is a prerequisite to apply for permission to run a course.

AYUSH’S stand

AYUSH stood its ground. It told the court that the college had vastly exaggerated its facilities. Against the requirement of six classrooms, there was only one; there were only 11 teachers against the requirement of 43 teachers; there were only 15 hospital staff as against the requirement of 50; out of the 470 pieces of equipment required for a college/hospital, there were only 217. Also, the college made no mention of facilities such as museum, teaching laboratory, clinical laboratory, library and a functional operation theatre.

AYUSH said the college did not produce the registers of its outpatient and inpatient departments; and that the departments of pathology and microbiology, community medicine, practice of medicine, surgery, gynaecology, forensic medicine and repertory were under construction. Accommodation was not available for the superintendent and the medical officer in the hospital.

Justice K. Chandru dismissed the writ petition (No.12061 of 2012), saying “there is no case made out by the petitioner [SVS Trust]”. “The petitioner’s attempt to seek reinspection also cannot be accepted. Since the orders have been passed by the competent authority after taking note of all relevant circumstances, the question of seeking fresh opportunity at this stage will not arise,” he said.

But SVS Education and Social Service Trust, which runs the college, went back to court in 2013, said an advocate familiar with the case. This time, the court ordered AYUSH to re-inspect the college’s facilities. In fact, the trust approached the court time and again on some pretext or the other. In 2015, the court, which heard a petition(WP No 28684 of 2014 and MP Nos. 1 and 2 of 2014), asked AYUSH “to grant approval to the petitioner institution for the academic year 2014-15 by passing appropriate orders, within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt of a copy of this order”.

Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, in his judgment on January 6, 2015, said: “The short issue, which falls for consideration, is whether the impugned order is sustainable in the light of the earlier order passed by this court in WP No.32047 of 2013 dated 9.10.2014. The challenge in that writ petition was to an order dated 19.11.2013, rejecting the petitioner’s application for approval to start the BHMS [Bachelor of Homoeopathy Medicine and Science] course for the academic year 2013-14, with an intake of 50 students. In the order dated 19.11.2013, nine defects were pointed out. It is to be noted that prior to the passing of the order dated 19.11.2013, the inspection committee submitted a report and the copy of the tabulated proforma containing the findings recorded by the inspection committee is placed in the typed set of papers. From the said report, it is found that the petitioner has satisfied the conditions required for starting the course and it is not in dispute that the inspecting committee recommended for granting approval to the petitioner institution with intake of 50 students. However, the first respondent chose to disagree with the findings of the inspecting committee. It has been pointed out that no fresh inspection was ordered and probably based on the materials, which are on record, the first respondent took a decision to reject the petitioner’s application and passed the order on 19.11.2013.” He added: “On a perusal of the report, it is evidently clear that all the defects pointed out were wholly untenable and, therefore, this court held that answer to each one of the deficiencies as contained in the report of the CCH [Central Council of Homoeopathy] and it support to demolish the stand taken by the respondents.” The court pointed out that none of the parameters laid down by the respondents had any relation to homoeopathy and yet the petitioner was found by the inspection team to have satisfied the requirements and the CCH had accepted the same. “Therefore, the order dated 19.11.2013 was held to be incapable of being sustained and it was set aside and the writ petition was allowed, and a moulded relief was granted to the petitioner,” the judge said.

AYUSH risked contempt of court but did not relent. The university, under Vice-Chancellor Shantharam, did nothing to indicate that it wanted the recognition to the college withdrawn. By now, the college had been in existence for over seven years and was yet to produce its first graduate. SVS Trust again went to court. This time a two-judge bench heard its petition (No.692 and 1218 of 2015).

On August 17, 2015, Justice Satish K. Agnihotri and Justice K.K. Sasidharan directed AYUSH to conduct a fresh inspection: “The appellant is directed to depute an inspection team to inspect the college established by the first respondent to ascertain as to whether the institution has complied with the statutory requirements, taking into account the compliance report submitted by the institution, pursuant to the notice dated 15 October 2014,” said the order disposing of the writ petition. The judges appended a small clause at the end of the order, which saved the future of 50 prospective students: “We make it clear that this order will not give right to the first respondent to admit students.”

As court battles raged on, students were risking everything to demand proper infrastructure. Two successive District Collectors did precious little to redress the students’ grievances. One student said that going to the collectorate every Monday to present a petition had become a sort of ritual. (District Collectors receive petitions from the public on Mondays.)

In turn, the college forces first-year students to go to the Collectorate with a counter-petition. The District Collector, M. Lakshmi, a 2009 batch promotee from the State cadre, refused to answer questions relating to the college. “This is not the time to ask. I am in a function,” she told this correspondent. (She was approached when she was leaving after presiding over a cultural show on January 26.) Asked if she would be available over the phone, she said this was not the forum to ask such a question.

The students’ protests did not end with petitioning the Collector every Monday. They even threatened to immolate themselves and consume pesticide in front of the Collectorate. While a self-immolation bid was foiled, six students were hospitalised after they consumed a pesticide. The Collector was not moved. One official told this correspondent that the Collector chided the students for consuming poison and “staging a drama”. The students petitioned even the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar of the university and various government authorities up to the Chief Minister’s cell.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced a compensation of Rs.1 lakh each for the families of the three girl students. (It may be recalled that in 2014, soon after Jayalalithaa was convicted in a corruption case and sent to prison in Bengaluru, some AIADMK cadres ended their lives. On being released from jail, Jayalalithaa gave a compensation of Rs.3 lakh to the next of kin of each of the deceased party workers.)

On January 29, the government decided to transfer the investigation of the case to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department, after having initially rejected a demand for it.

It appears that two factors influenced the decision. One was the allegation by the institution that the whole episode was a ruse to malign it. The other, put forth by a parent and an official, needs to be studied closely. The bags of the three students were reportedly placed in a straight line near the spot of the “suicide”. Their slippers were placed in a straight line a little distance away. Also, the students had suffered head injuries, although the well had a considerable amount of water and, by all accounts, they “jumped” into it directly. The suspicions got strengthened after at least one parent said that the signature on the suicide note differed from his daughter’s. The mobile phone of one of the girls is missing.

Monisha’s father, Tamilarsan, refused to accept the body of his daughter after the district authorities conducted a hurried post-mortem at a local medical college hospital. The reason given for rushing through the process was that the hospital did not have a proper mortuary. The district authorities and the police did not think it fit to get a team of forensic experts to conduct the post-mortem even though the parents had alleged that their daughters had not committed suicide and that it was a case of murder. Tamilarsan approached the High Court demanding a second post-mortem. The government claimed in the court that Tamilarsan was not cooperating and that he was obstinate.

“The petitioner demanded that the autopsy on his daughter’s body be conducted only in Chennai and refused to cooperate with the district administration. As he refused to budge even after repeated requests, after fulfilling all the legal aspects, the post-mortem was conducted on Monisha’s body on January 25. The entire process has been video-graphed, and the body is preserved in the Government Medical College Hospital, Villupuram,” the public prosecutor said ( The Hindu, January 28).

The judge, R. Subbiah, ordered another post-mortem. “Since the plea has been made by the father of the deceased girl, the court is of the opinion that the prayer can be considered,” he said.

Meanwhile, the students have resolved to continue their agitation. The Democratic Youth Federation of India and the Students Federation of India are supporting them.

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