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AMRI fire: Indian doctors want to remain 'untouchable'

Last updated on: February 1, 2012 11:00 IST

AMRI fire: Indian docs want to remain 'untouchable'

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Members of the medical community and the powerful lobby of the Indian Medical Association have erupted in violent protests following the arrest of two of their senior colleagues in connection with the devastating AMRI fire, points out Dr Kunal Saha

More than 90 patients were suffocated to death in a devastating fire at the Advance Medicare Research Institute Hospital in Kolkata in what was perhaps the worst medical tragedy in the history of the Indian healthcare system. 

While the people of West Bengal are used to witnessing medical calamities of gigantic proportions, the AMRI incident has continued to remain in the headlines for a long time for more than one reason. Unlike the lackadaisical attitude of the earlier Left Front government that had dragged Bengal's healthcare standards to an abysmal low, the new state government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reacted sharply to this horrendous public disaster. 

The members of the AMRI board of directors -- most of them wealthy businessmen -- were promptly arrested and put behind bars for their negligent role in this criminal act. More recently, two AMRI managing directors and eminent city doctors -- Mani Chhetri and Pranab Dasgupta -- were also arrested for their alleged involvement with this fiasco.

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Image: A file photo of the AMFRI fire


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Was the government right in arresting these senior doctors?

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Not surprisingly, members of the medical community and the powerful lobby of the Indian Medical Association have erupted in violent protests following the arrest of two of their senior colleagues. Medical leaders have claimed that the arrest of the two elderly and highly-respected physicians is wrong and politically motivated. 

They have insisted that the government should have been more merciful because not only have these two doctors saved many ailing citizens throughout their professional careers, but they are also very elderly (Dr Chhetri is reportedly more than 90 years old). 

The chief minister has argued that the two doctors were arrested for their careless roles as managing directors of AMRI and that law should be applied equally to every citizen irrespective of his age, profession or status in the society. 

This unprecedented situation has raised an obvious question in the minds of most residents of Bengal -- was the government right in the en masse arrest of top members of AMRI Hospital including the two doctors? Or did it abuse its power to arrest these members in an overzealous mode to satisfy a devious political agenda?

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The medical fraternity is unwilling to accept the long reach of law

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The answer to the two questions above may not be available until all the evidence is put forward and the trial comes to an end. But one thing is clear -- the highly influential and hitherto untouchable members of the medical fraternity in West Bengal are unwilling to accept the long reach of law without a fight. It is truly amazing to find our medical leaders demanding that the government should have been more careful before arresting the two doctors because they are highly esteemed professors and physicians and because of their advanced age. 

Dr Chhetri and Dr Dasgupta were arrested for criminal offences as allowed under the Indian Penal Code allegedly for failure to perform their duties as managing directors of AMRI Hospital. They were not charged for causing the death of these patients for "criminal negligence" as a result of wrongful therapy. The two doctors' depth of medical knowledge or quality of their treatment had absolutely no role to play in their arrests in the present case. 

And even if this was a case involving the wrongful death of a patient from alleged reckless treatment, should the experience or reputation of an accused doctor play any role for apposite investigation in a case for criminal negligence?

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The standard of healthcare has plummeted to pitiful conditions

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The two doctors were arrested for rash and negligent act (as managing directors of AMRI Hospital) that might have contributed to the massive fire, which eventually resulted scores of deaths. 

The fact that these two individuals are well-known doctors or that they are of an advanced age should have absolutely nothing to do with the proper prosecution and delivery of equitable justice in this case.
 
There is no denying that the standard of healthcare has plummeted to pitiful conditions in West Bengal. Reports of horrific deaths of patients in Bengal hospitals appear frequently in the news these days. But unlike in Western countries, criminal prosecution of doctors is virtually non-existent in West Bengal and across India. 

Even after Dr Ketan Desai, former president of the Medical Council of India, was caught red-handed by the Central Bureau of Investigation while taking a bribe from a private medical college, no doctor or medical group came forward to demand a punishment for this disgraced medical leader.

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Mamata Banerjee must be commended

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In fact, doctors in India are rarely found guilty even in civil courts or consumer forums for a variety of reasons. Indian healers have historically maintained their impervious status by keeping a closely-knit fraternity feeling among the medical community.  It is common knowledge today that doctors are reluctant to come forward to testify against their errant medical colleagues even in genuine cases of wrongful death involving medical negligence. 

Little wonder that the Bengal medical lobby is extremely agitated with the government. Indian medicos want to remain above the law and maintain their "untouchable" status.
 
While the ordinary people of West Bengal are likely to remain skeptical about the eventual legal outcome of the fiasco at AMRI Hospital, Mamata Banerjee must be commended for showing extraordinary character by going after the affluent and highly-influential members of the business as well as the medical community. 

Her seemingly sincere efforts to bring justice to the victims of the AMRI Hospital fire should instill a new glimmer of hope for hapless patients across West Bengal.

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Image: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee


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A fair and impartial trial is needed

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As the chief minister has rightly pointed out, the law must be equally applicable to all without any extraneous considerations. Article 14 of the Constitution has unequivocally stipulated that the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws. 

Bengal medical leaders would be well advised to remember that the long and illustrious professional career of Dr Chhetri and Dr Dasgupta should not deny justice to the 90-plus families of those patients who perished in AMRI Hospital, perhaps due to the slipshod activities by the members of the board or managing directors who have been incarcerated by the state government. 

Only a fair and impartial trial of the arrested individuals can unravel the ultimate truth and expose those characters who were truly responsible for the tragedy. Delivery of equitable justice in this historic case would not only bring some solace for the victims' families, it would also undoubtedly go a long way towards restoring public trust in the crumbling medical system of West Bengal. 

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