A year after the devastating fire at AMRI Hospital in Kolkata, another inferno is just waiting to erupt anytime in another hospital or nursing home in the state, warns Dr Kunal Saha
Barely weeks before the first anniversary of the nightmarish inferno at Kolkata's AMRI Hospital that claimed the lives of 90 patients, another fire blazed across SSKM Hospital, a premier state-run post-graduate medical institute in the metropolis.
Luckily, there were no casualties on this occasion as the patients were able to flee the smouldering medical wards. But there was hardly any change in the indifferent attitude shown by the leaders of our government. The same old blame game has already started.
While officials in the health department have promptly put the culpability squarely on the engineering division of SSKM Hospital, others have hinted that the fire might have resulted from 'sabotage'.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also holds the health portfolio, has candidly faulted the Left-front government for the fire at SSKM Hospital. Ironically, this is hardly a surprise for the ordinary people of West Bengal these days.
Our CM has mastered the craft of blaming the Left-front government (and the media) whenever anything goes awry under her administration. But a serious question looms large for millions of Bengal residents -- what is the guarantee of patients escaping unscathed the next time a blaze engulfs a hospital in West Bengal?
The devastating fire in AMRI Hospital, with the ghastly images seen on television in the wee hours of December 9 last year, still creates bone-chilling memories for many of us. The defenceless patients succumbed to an agonising death from thick black smoke -- many perished while lying in their hospital beds as they were unable to even walk out of the room.
There was little doubt that the fire at AMRI Hospital was caused by brazen violation of safety rules, likely the result of sheer greed by the hospital authority to reap a heftier profit by cutting corners on necessary fire-hazard regulations.
The newly-elected leader of Ma-Mati-Manush -- Mamata Banerjee -- rushed to the shell-shocked victims. She promised those whose loved ones had just been charred to death that nobody will be spared for this colossal human tragedy. Indeed, over the next few weeks, intense activities were undertaken by the government and AMRI Hospital was promptly shut down.
Members of the AMRI board of directors, most of whom were eminent city doctors or industrialists, were arrested and charged for criminal negligence. The state government also declared that the family of all victims who died would be awarded an one-time compensation of Rs 5 lakh.
Considering that this fiery accident occurred at a premier private hospital where the cost of treatment for a few days may easily run into lakhs of rupees, this compensation could hardly bring any solace to the aching hearts of the 'living' victims of this unprecedented disaster.
Almost a year later, the hope for justice for victims of the AMRI Hospital fiasco has taken a complete U-turn. All arrested board members are now roaming free and the criminal case against them has been conveniently put into a deep slumber -- thanks to the endless Indian judicial quagmire.
Investigations by other fora like the State Medical Council for violation of professional ethics and etiquettes have also been swept under the carpet. The news headlines have long vanished for obvious reasons.
AMRI Hospital itself has been revamped. It is gearing up to start the healthcare business once again while the quest for justice by ill-fated friends and families of the victims has remained as intangible and baffling as ever.
The promise made by Banerjee -- that prompt justice will be delivered and nobody would be spared -- has proved to be nothing more than an empty rhetoric that unscrupulous political leaders in India have been using from time immemorial.
There can be little doubt that the almost forgotten AMRI episode has come to the forefront once again because of the fire at the SSKM hospital almost one year later. But have we learned any lesson about fire safety in Bengal hospitals in the past one year?
It has been established beyond the shadow of doubt that the ruinous fire at AMRI Hospital was caused by reckless disregard for fire hazard regulations by the hospital authority.
Some government fire inspectors also played a dubious role as they deliberately allowed the hospital to function even with expired fire safety registration. Even more alarming was the finding that many hospitals in Kolkata and across West Bengal are ticking time-bombs that are waiting to explode any day as they routinely run their business with little or no regard for necessary fire safety norms.
Little wonder that it was the turn of SSKM Hospital this time. Banerjee's government should thank their lucky stars that no precious human life was lost. Rather than pointing fingers at the earlier Left-front governments or blaming the media for every calamity, our CM should be advised that it is time for constructive self-criticism and an honest introspection.
There is no evidence that the current state government has been able to bring any changes to curb the wide-spread corruption and cronyism that had plagued the Left-front government and eventually caused their downfall in West Bengal.
Despite frequent boisterous claims made by the medical leaders of the Banerjee-led government, healthcare in West Bengal has remained in an abysmal condition.
The fire at SSKM Hospital should be taken as a wake-up call by the Bengal government. All hospitals and nursing homes must be compelled to strictly adhere to fire safety regulations.
Otherwise, the state government would run out of luck as another inferno is just waiting to erupt anytime in another hospital or nursing home. Unfortunately, only the innocent citizens will end up paying the ultimate price with their lives for the misdeeds of this government.
Dr Kunal Saha is the president of People for Better Treatment, which works for the promotion of better healthcare