DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA
Recent events confirm the western world’s view that India is a country of contradictions. Foreigners who hold this view and have come to witness India record its name in the international Formula One race calendar must have felt vindicated.
How else can one explain the country breaking barriers in the field of science and technology, medical research and yet be counting the abnormally high deaths reported from hospitals in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and the government’s inability to reduce the high incidence of suicide among farmers in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The purpose of research in the field of medical science is to give the right to life the deserved meaning by finding ways and means to fight diseases. If a government is duty-bound to encourage such research, it is also constitutionally obliged to provide proper health infrastructure, including adequate number of doctors, so that people do not fall victim to any ailment.
If India has marched into the 21st century with a string of successes in scientific developments, how does one explain the death of 17 newborns in the last few days in Kolkata’s Burdwan Medical College Hospital? Who will compensate the parents for their loss? Surprisingly, the Mamata Banerjee government has already given a clean chit to the hospital by terming it as natural deaths. In eastern UP, nearly 500 people, mostly children, have died of encephalitis in the last four months. In BRD Medical College Hospital, three patients fought for space on each bed. Unable to take the load, the X-ray machine, ventilators and other equipment malfunctioned. Can patients and relatives of those who succumbed to the disease claim compensation from the government for poor health infrastructure?
The Supreme Court has consistently held that it is obligatory on the part of the government to provide adequate medical services to citizens. It had categorically held in State of Haryana vs Smt Santra [2000 (5) SCC 182] that the government’s health service officials were not spared from liability of paying damages to patients and their relatives for medical negligence. The healthcare system in its true sense has not reached the rural hinterland. Despite the much publicised National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), there are only 23,000 primary health centres in rural areas, each with six beds catering to a population of 20,000-30,000. Is this infrastructure enough to provide free basic healthcare? Can a villager, who is not poor if he spends Rs 32 on his food daily, afford to go to a private hospital which has expertise in fleecing patients? Can a villager ever dare to complain against the absence of doctors, support staff or unavailability of medicines in these PHCs? The SC in Spring Meadows Hospital vs Harjol Ahluwalia [JT 1998 (2) SC 620] said, “The relationship between doctor and patient is not always equally balanced. The attitude of a patient is poised between trust in the learning of another and the general distress of one who is in a state of uncertainty and such ambivalence naturally leads to a sense of inferiority and it is therefore the function of medical ethics to ensure that superiority of the doctor is not abused in any manner.”
Caught in the quagmire of inadequate health infrastructure and costly treatment in private hospitals, it is little wonder that quacks have a field day in rural India. There is a mushrooming of private medical colleges but none of the doctors who pass out would like to practise in rural areas, for villagers can never pay the fees he would demand to meet the expenses he incurred in getting an MBBS degree. We must have Formula One races in India. But is it not equally or more important for the government or the private sector to spend an equal amount to have high-class health infrastructure to cater to the rural poor?