The United Nations Human Development Report has shown up the glaring schizophrenic nature of India’s war against child mortality. At one end of the spectrum, there are pockets, such as villages in West Bengal’s Midnapore district, where simply providing the most basic access to clean water has led to drastic curbs in infant and child deaths. At the other end, in places intriguingly like the same West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, 22 children die over three days in the state-run BC Roy Children’s Hospital. How does such a paradox exist in 21st century India?
Part of the answer lies in how the State reacts to infant and child mortality. In the Kolkata incident, the authorities actually claim that the situation is not as bad as it appears. The hospital’s medical superintendent stated that 60 per cent of the babies who died were born prematurely, and the unusual death toll was simply a “coincidence”. He conveniently failed to report that none of the incubators, life-support equipment and ventilators in the hospital were working. He also kept mum about the fact that there were no heart and lung monitors in the hospital. In September 2002, when 18 children had died over three days in the same hospital, the medical superintendent and some of his colleagues were transferred. Rs 1.8 crore was sanctioned by the state government for infrastructure and hospital reforms. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had appealed to the doctors to be ‘humane’ and had admonished the prevalent trade unionism in hospitals. Nothing seems to have worked considering the same ghoulish routine is being replayed four years later. So the question that begs to be asked is: when does one consider a situation to be bad? When the numbers mount? Or when the victims are less anonymous? Such a callous attitude is what makes government hospitals across the country cesspools of death instead of life-saving centres.
That Bangladesh has outperformed India in being a healthier country for its children is a point that the government in India should take note of. Unless healthcare for the masses forms a main pillar in reform plans, ambitious MoUs and even more airy-fairy promises will do little to rescue a vast number of Indians from sickness.