Hospital tragedy casts doubt on Indian PM Modi’s narrative of development

Hospital tragedy casts doubt on Indian PM Modi’s narrative of development
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Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath walks out after visiting the Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on Sunday. (AFP)
Hospital tragedy casts doubt on Indian PM Modi’s narrative of development
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An Indian relative holds the body of a child while walking out of Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2017

Hospital tragedy casts doubt on Indian PM Modi’s narrative of development

Hospital tragedy casts doubt on Indian PM Modi’s narrative of development

NEW DELHI: Ramkrishan moved his three-month-old son from one clinic to another on Thursday evening. When he was finally referred to Baba Raghav Das Medical College Gorakhpur, popularly known as BRDM, some 30 km from his village Belipur, he saw a ray of hope.
Gorakhpur is a district town in eastern Indian Uttar Pradesh (UP), very close to the border with Nepal and around 270 km away from the state capital, Lucknow.
With a little effort Ramkrishan found a bed in the hospital, which boasts a capacity of over 800 beds. Suddenly his son began to collapse and when the doctor was called in, he ordered an immediate infusion of oxygen into the baby’s body. Here, the 36-year old farmer’s luck ran out.
Minutes after the oxygen mask was put on the baby’s face, the supply of the life-saving gas stopped and within an hour, the newborn was cold and stiff despite last-minute attempts at manual resuscitation.
For two hours on Thursday night last week between 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., the biggest government hospital in the district with a population of more than 4.5 million, operated without liquid oxygen causing the deaths of more than 30 babies within an hour.
The contractor for the oxygen cylinders disrupted the supply over an unpaid bill which had been due for six months. He had already served notice to the hospital and threatened to withdraw the supply if the payment were not made by July 31. However, he continued supplying oxygen until Aug. 4 and then stopped. According to reports, the hospital owes the oxygen company some $90,000.
“The hospital killed my little baby. Had I known that this was the state of affairs in the hospital I would have never stepped into this deadly place,” said Ramkrishan, fuming with anger, in a telephone conversation with Arab News.
According to hospital staff, more than 60 deaths have occurred in the hospital since Aug. 6. Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, a children-rights advocate has termed the tragedy “a massacre” in a tweet.
But the ruling BJP is not willing to accept it as a tragedy and a failure of governance. When Arab News contacted the BJP spokesperson in UP, Rakesh Tripathi, he flatly refused to take any blame for the human suffering.
“This is not a tragedy that has taken place today. Gorakhpur has been witnessing the deaths of children since 1978. The whole region suffers from extreme backwardness and poverty and the BJP government in UP is working hard to redress the sufferings of the people,” said Tripathi.
He blamed the previous government for neglecting health care and not paying proper attention to the medical problems that have been troubling eastern India for a long time.
The tragedy becomes all the more pronounced because it is in the home district of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a poster boy for the Hindu right-wing party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A controversial politician known for his rabble-rousing speeches, his appointment as the head of one India’s largest states in March this year came in for trenchant criticism by liberals in India.
Now questions are being raised about the merit of choosing a man who has been indulging in divisive politics ever since he assumed office. Within days of becoming chief minister, he introduced a blanket ban on all slaughterhouses rendering many Muslims jobless. He launched a campaign to save cows, an animal many Hindus consider sacred, and his followers began a policy of rampant vigilantism whereby any Muslim transporting cows was beaten up and charged with killing the animal which is a punishable offense. A few weeks ago he launched a cow ambulance.
“This government has been completely focussed on ideology and not governance after coming to power,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, who has written a very popular biography of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Talking to Arab News, he further added, “Just imagine if the tragedy had taken place in a veterinary hospital and 60 cows died there; then, there would have been a large hue and cry from the ruling party.”
Congress, the country’s main opposition party, has blamed Yogi for the tragedy. “The BJP govt is responsible and should punish the negligent ones who caused this tragedy,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi, the vice president of the party.
A local BJP legislator told Arab News on condition of anonymity that “too much ideological politics is taking its toll on the party and sooner or later, we will pay the price electorally.”
Gorakhpur is adjacent to Modi’s parliamentary constituency, Varanasi. The tragedy raises a question over his claims of ushering in a new era of development in India. In his election campaign in UP he promised to bring about a revolutionary change in the health care system in Gorakhpur, which has been experiencing outbreaks of encephalitis since the late 1990s.
“No doubt the image of Modi, the only selling point for the BJP, is going to be impacted. It now raises questions about his style of governance. You don’t want to inject systematic changes but indulge in constant rhetoric. This kind of politics has limitations,” said Mukhopadhyay.
Politically, UP holds the key to power in Delhi. It has 80 parliamentary seats. The BJP won 71 seats in the last elections in 2014 and that brought the Hindu party into power in Delhi. If Modi wants to come back to power in 2019, a sweeping victory in the eastern Indian state is a must. The tragedy in Gorakhpur comes as a shock to the party which has been boasting of good governance, a clean India and ushering in a new narrative of development.
The very fact that Modi himself is focusing all his attention on the hospital speaks volumes about the significance the UP holds for BJP’s remaining in power.
The opposition sees an opportunity in the tragedy. Since Saturday all national and regional opposition leaders have visited the hospital and come down heavily on the BJP.
“The BJP will have to change its track if it is serious in coming to power in Delhi in 2019,” said Pawan Kumar, a Gorakhpur based journalist. In a conversation with Arab News, he said: “Religious polarization can bring electoral dividends but people have not voted for the party for this; they believed the BJP’s rhetoric of development. If the party fails on that count, it cannot think of returning to power in 2019.”