At latest count, about ninety people, most of them helpless patients, died in the accidental fire that broke out yesterday at one of Kolkata’s premier (and most expensive –) hospitals. Most of them choked to death. See this report.
Virtually every adult in this country knows, of course, that our closed public spaces are high-risk fire hazards as a rule. Occasional disasters merely remind us of this grotesque fact, such as the fire on the Doon Express a few days ago, the blaze at Stephen’s Court, also in Kolkata some time ago, the news of a large number of schoolchildren who were roasted alive somewhere in south India before that, and a similar incident at a Delhi cinema a few years before that. We live with that knowledge, preferring not to think about it, since we all feel that very ordinary people like us cannot do a thing by ourselves to change things for the better, and praying is better than worrying that it may happen to us or ours, since worry only leads to bad dreams and ulcers.
The fact of the matter, though, is that it isn’t only ordinary people (who are most likely to be the victims) who don’t care: those in power don’t, either. Most places like schools, offices, bazaars, cinemas and hospitals either do not have clearances showing that they are prepared to handle such emergencies with minimum loss of life and limb, or even if their papers are in order, the ground reality is that they are entirely unprepared, both in terms of equipment and trained personnel. It’s like not only do you shut your eyes when you look at disaster hurtling towards your car, but your driver does too! So the security guards not only do not swing into action at once but dally in raising the alarm, the police arrive late, the firemen, despite their courage and best of intentions, are handicapped by woefully inadequate equipment too, and they all have to rely on the spontaneous and desperate assistance given by the men from the nearby slum – who, ironically, are personae non grata to the authorities in the normal course of things! They do their best, of course, but that best, being clumsy and chaotic, cannot prevent a horrific casualty toll. After a brief outburst of lamentation and indignation – maybe a roadblock for a few hours, a few buses burnt, a few low level functionaries beaten up, some compensation announced and some condolences offered – the public forgets, the media turn their attention to newer sensations, the police cases are covered up, the culprits (to wit the moneybags who run these profit-churning institutions and cannot bother to ‘waste money’ on safety precautions) let off with minor reprimands and fines, and no strict, large-scale, exhaustive measures are adopted to ensure that such horrors will never be repeated.
That some people, layman or high official, claim to be shocked when such mishaps occur is what makes me want to puke. Why do they pretend, grown-up and educated people, that they don’t know how uncaring and inept we are, most of us, at taking responsibility for others, even when that happens to be our job? The other day I had asked some pupils to write a short essay on the kind of fire-control measures they had at school, and they had little idea – no fault of theirs! – and when I told them about some of the rules (fire escapes, extinguishers and sandbags on every floor, at least a few full-body asbestos suits for emergency rescue, sick room with nurses skilled in first aid, police and fire brigade hotlines, regular evacuation drills and teachers trained compulsorily to handle such crises…) they laughed cynically, as well they might, knowing whatever they already do: ‘Sir, is there one school in this country which is fully prepared in that sense?’ And as for this particular hospital, let me narrate just one incident in which I was personally involved. About 11 years ago I had gone there to get a CAT scan done (there was a pain in the neck and the doctor suspected spondylitis). I asked about costs at the reception, and the figure they quoted sounded exorbitant to me, so I was visibly hesitating when the man asked ‘How much money do you have in your pocket (apni koto taka enechhen)? It sounded such a bizarre question that I felt I was talking to a carrion-eating vulture, not a human being. I turned around without a word and went off to get the scan done elsewhere. This is the attitude of the personnel who deal with you first at that hospital. Is it any wonder that they would be ghoulishly unconcerned about patient safety? Tellingly, while a couple of nurses lost their lives trying to save sick children, a lot of staffers, including securitymen, allegedly ran for safety at the first hint of serious danger.
One Bengali newspaper (Shongbad Protidin, p. 4) has published a very sympathetic article today about the proprietor of the hospital, one S.K. Todi, saying what a nice man he is, and how hard he has worked to give the city a great hospital, how unfair it is of fate to deal him such a big blow in his declining years, and how this ‘utterly unexpected’ disaster has left him a broken man. CM Mamata Banerjee has promptly cancelled the licence of the hospital, and vowed to give the ‘harshest punishment’ to the guilty. It remains to be seen whether she would like to start with Mr. Todi. If he is not an arch criminal making money hand over fist with utter disregard for human life, can’t we at least agree that he is too big a fool (if he really thinks the disaster was ‘utterly unexpected’) to be trusted with running anything more serious than a street-corner paan shop?
One last word for the young and not-so-young who worship the wealthy like gods: these are the CEO types who drive about in BMWs, stay in seven-star hotels and go holidaying in the Riviera. Do you begin to see why I habitually wrinkle my nose when I hear of them?