The horrific death of at least 70 children at the state-run BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh shocked the country and stirred public consciousness. This August 2017 tragedy must not be forgotten or allowed to disappear from our collective memory. The deaths exposed the serious systemic gaps in public health infrastructure, as well as the atrocious administration of healthcare delivery. While this occurred in the BRD hospital, it cautioned against the gross fissures in the health system as a whole.
An unfortunate response to the tragedy was the prosecution and incarceration of Dr Kafeel Khan, who was in-charge of the paediatric ward at the BRD Medical College. His efforts at rendering his duties as a doctor and as a public servant in an emergency, despite the challenges of the poor infrastructure and care in the hospital, and arranging for the much-needed oxygen for the children, were not acknowledged and instead, penalised.
Soon after, in August 2017, he was charged with ‘attempt to murder’ and has since been languishing in jail. He had admitted that he fully cooperated with the police and had surrendered himself with faith in the legal system, and with the hope of a fair and due process of the law. His pleas of being innocent and being falsely accused were ignored by the state and judiciary for eight months. Dr Khan finally received bail from the Allahabad high court yesterday.
However, the eight months also witnessed a parallel “trial” where many questions and assertions were made – about his socio-economic and religious background, about alleged private practice and corruption, impersonation, etc, justifying the paediatrician’s guilt and therefore, his incarceration.
Most of these allegations were eventually proven false. However, these questions and allegations, many of which also emerged from the state’s machinery, do not explain why no action was taken by the authorities and others in governance even if he or the system was thought to be corrupt. Corruption cannot be condoned and stringent action should be taken against it; however, the August travesty indicates that the corruption and negligence was systemic, sustained and far from an individual’s – here Dr Khan’s – responsibility alone.
The state government had the power to ensure that all the amenities at BRD Medical College were in place to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring, but it did not do so.
A letter endorsed by major health networks such as the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and Medico Friend Circle, by over 80 medical professionals from across the country, as well as 150 other public health researchers, activists, CSOs, feminists and other concerned individuals was sent to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, seeking justice for Dr Khan.
The letter states that as a doctor, he tried to manage the terrible situation – that stemmed from systemic negligence. The letter reiterates the demand for due process to be followed and against the selective fixing of accountability. It seeks to focus on the problem of an unjust process and prosecution, even when several others have narrowed their focus on the person and tried to point to problems therein.
Sarojini Nadimpally and Deepa Venkatachalam work on public health issues and are a part of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.