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What do Gorakhpur and Kumbakonam have in common?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-08-2017 Dharani Thangavelu

Chennai/ Gorakhpur: One July morning thirteen years ago, the thatched roof of a private school at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu caught fire, which spread quickly to the rest of the school and killed 94 children in one deadly inferno.

A judicial commission that investigated the matter brought out the apathy, greed and collusion that ended in the Kumbakonam horror. It was found that three schools were run in the building, illegally.

Few lessons have been learnt in the intervening years, it seems, with last week’s mass death of children at BDR Medical College in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur due to a suspected oxygen shortage.

A day ahead of Independence Day, tricolour vendors dot the streets in Gorakhpur, the Lok Sabha constituency that elected Yogi Adityanath to the Parliament for five consecutive times until he quit parliament to take charge as state chief minister in March. There are many tricolour vendors on the roads leading to the BDR Medical College, one of the largest centres for encephalitis treatment in India.

Sixty-three people—including 30 children, some of them new-born—have died overnight. Official negligence, apathy and a complete lack of accountability led to oxygen supplies to the hospital being cut off, and as always, the price was paid by the weakest and the most vulnerable.

As sick children lie on hospital beds, their parents and relatives—migrant workers and daily wage earners from places as far away as Bangalore and Hyderabad—sit beside them on the same bed, stay hunched outside the wards, or sleep on the floors.

“Who has got time for us and our children? The doctors and staff are too busy, for answers, for treatment, for everything. On the day the oxygen supplies failed, we were not told anything, just handed pumps,” says Narmada Devi whose three-year-old daughter has been admitted to the hospital. Her child is safe, but she can’t get over the fact that it could just as easily have been her daughter.

The government has denied that deaths took place due to lack of oxygen, with the chief minister even blaming unhygienic surroundings, one of the main causes for Encephalitis, but the grim tales of patients and the wails of mourning mothers tell a different story.

The state government has denied there was any oxygen supply disruption, but still raided the supplier’s office. The head of the medical college and its paediatrics ward chief have been fired. No one in the government has taken responsibility so far.

The behaviour of the state and the administration bear parallels with the Kumbakonam tragedy. However, retired Madras high court judge D. Hariparanthaman said: “There is something more important than the administrative callousness in this incident. Those who died due to lack of oxygen supply were suffering from encephalitis that has claimed hundreds of lives in the state.”

He asked: “What has the government done over the years to curb this disease?”

While official apathy has been highlighted in both the Gorakhpur and the Kumbakonam incidents, Hariparanthaman said there is more to the former than just administrative indifference.

“Though it is important to highlight the government’s denial and the flouting of rules by authorities in Kumbakonam fire accident case, it cannot be compared to the apathy of Uttar Pradesh’s lack of priority to its healthcare,” he said.

At the Sri Krishna Nursery and Primary School in Kumbakonam, mid-day meal was being prepared in the school kitchen on the morning of 16 July 2004, just a month after it reopened after summer vacation. The blaze from the kitchen spread to the thatched roof of the classroom on the first floor, The Hindu had then reported. It also said, “Fire-fighting and rescue operations were hampered by a lack of access to the three-storey school building — located between two residential buildings — and with only one entrance and a single flight of stairs.”

An inquiry commission into the incident under justice K. Sampath set up in 2005, observed that safety norms were violated and blamed on the school authorities and education department officials.

The justice K. Sampath commission observed: “It was avaricious cruelty on the part of the management to have made so many innocent children sit in the classes under the thatched roof and lose their precious lives. The authorities had been hoodwinked or purchased outright for allowing the management to run three schools where not even one school could be run.”

Last week, the Madras High Court suspended the conviction and sentence awarded to seven accused by a lower court. While the bench abated the charges against one accused, following the person’s death during the pendency of the appeal, it modified the sentences of two others. In 2014, a Thanjavur court that was hearing the case had acquitted 11 and convicted 10, of the 21 accused.

The tricolour flags at Gorakhpur’s streets this time come adorned with a golden fringe, lending a more-than uncanny resemblance to a religious decorative cloth. But few people here are in any mood to celebrate, after losing so many young lives in a possibly avoidable tragedy. Learning the right lessons from Gorakhpur could save lives in the future. So far, there are few indications to it.

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