As coronavirus cases continue to surge during the second wave of the pandemic, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has constructed temporary hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients in Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Lucknow and New Delhi – which are the Lok Sabha constituencies of the country’s most powerful leaders.
But, these hospitals are run by doctors and medical staff of the armed forces, depriving the soldiers and veterans of the essential medical facilities they need at this time of the crisis. And the medical corps is unable to fulfil its primary role of ‘force preservation’, thereby affecting the military’s operational readiness.
The 500-bed Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel COVID Hospital (SVBPCH) near the New Delhi airport started functioning on April 19. Even though it is popularly known as the DRDO hospital, the facility is manned by 122 medical officers, 48 nursing officers and 120 paramedical staff from the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The Dhanvantri COVID Care Hospital in Ahmedabad, inaugurated by the Union home minister Amit Shah, was the second hospital which was made functional with the help of Armed Forces Medical Services. This hospital is planned to be a 900-bed facility, and already has more than 200 patients. A contingent of about 70 healthcare personnel, including 19 doctors, from the three defence services have been moved from various parts of the country to serve in the hospital.
Similar DRDO hospitals are expected to be made functional in the very near future in Lucknow and Varanasi. The armed forces have already earmarked a contingent of 33 doctors, 69 paramedical staff and 34 nursing staff for the hospital in Lucknow which is planned to be a 450-bed facility. The hospital is likely to be inaugurated later this week by the defence minister, as it falls in his Lok Sabha constituency.
In Varanasi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency – a 750-bed DRDO hospital is being created at a great speed and is likely to be functional in the next few days. A contingent of more than 30 doctors from the armed forces is in the process of being deployed for the hospital.
A 500-bed hospital has been established by the support of armed forces at Employees State Insurance (ESI) Hospital, Bihta, Patna. Initially, 50 beds were made operational, and four doctors from the armed forces are working there. However, the armed forces feel that this commitment is coming at a cost of their primary role, because after the DRDO gets the temporary shelters erected, the provisioning of medical personnel and facilities such as instrumentation in these hospitals has been conveniently left to the ‘discretion’ of the armed forces.
“More than 200 medical officers, including specialists, are working in these hospitals. Where have they come from? Young regimental medical officers have been moved from far and wide. Our post graduate residents have volunteered to defer their critical post graduate training to assist the specialists. This is in addition to the more than 300 nursing and paramedical staff already working or moving to these hospitals,” a senior military officer told The Wire on the condition of anonymity.
The armed forces’ medical staff and infrastructure was already overstretched after the pandemic because of taking the additional load of the nearly 50 lakh retired military personnel who can no longer access the ECHS (Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Scheme) facility at civil hospitals. And hidden behind the rhetoric of ‘walking the extra mile’ is a grave reality: the medical infrastructure of the armed forces is stretched beyond limits.
“A grave situation has emerged. Our own hospitals, already overflowing with dependents and veterans affected by COVID-19, are being told to share ‘excess capacities’ with civilians, when in reality no such capacities exist. We have signed a number of MoUs (memorandums of understanding) with private hospitals to allot certain beds for the war-wounded soldiers,” the officer explained.
“The primary aim of the medical corps is to ensure force preservation in times of peace and war. Rest is secondary. It is like the warning in the aeroplane: please wear your oxygen mask before helping others. It is not fair on the soldiers, veterans and their families. The medical corps is stretched to the point of not being able to cater to its own”.
These hospitals are branded as DRDO hospitals and are being constructed in top VIP constituencies, and the DRDO leadership continues to offer constructing more and more hospitals on behalf of the medical corps of the armed forces. The military is worried because the DRDO is promising four more such hospitals, and its anger is directed at the DRDO.
“Take the case of the SVBPCH facility in Delhi. The place was carefully branded as a DRDO hospital despite the fact that not a single DRDO scientist was involved in either the planning, running or execution of services at the hospital. Apart from the banner and a single person – an inventory manager – DRDO is conspicuous by its absence. It has outsourced the construction, electrification and administration to civilian contractors. This doesn’t require any specialised skill set,” said a second senior military officer.
When The Wire asked if the armed forces are not to play their part in a public health crisis like this, the second officer said, “Of course, they have to. But this buffer, which was to be used only in case of emergencies as the absolute last resort, has been committed in the first instant. And this comes at the cost of the readiness of the armed forces themselves. It is important to understand the distress of our medical staff. What is required is tempering and an attitude of setting aside promotional aspects and ego massaging of political masters at this time”.
Sushant Singh is an award-winning journalist who has served in the Indian Army. He has taught political science at Yale University.
On May 4, the Indian Army’s public relations officer wrote to The Wire with the following response to the above story:
The article purports to show that the current deployment of doctors and nursing staff of Armed Forces at various adhoc hospitals being setup across the country have resulted in hampering the operational readiness of the forces.
It is clarified that the Armed Forces are maintaining their operational readiness at full capacity to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation. All the deployments mentioned in the article have been deliberated at the highest levels, keeping in mind the requirement for Force Preservation of the entire Armed Forces.
The author, Sushant Singh, says:
I stand by my story.
Note: This article was edited on May 5, 2021, with the responses of the Indian Army and Sushant Singh.