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Saturday, December 10, 2011

AMRI blaze: who really cares?

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?


Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

I think the key issue is that of human life being 'cheap' in India. One of the main reasons for that is our population - that teeming mass of humanity which makes sure that the very sanctity of human life is lost. This is what results in our 'Chalta Hai' attitude towards safety and security.

As an aside, I recall one of my colleagues commenting on the induction process at one of our customer's office in the UK with the induction process our own company has. The customer's induction process for new joinees included educating everyone about the nearest emergency exits, assembly points, evacuation procedures, emergency phone nos. (and no one treated it as a boring chore) while our company's induction is restricted to singing peans about our own achievements, legacy, organization structure and all that.


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvro da

I simply cannot believe that this happened and none of us are sure whether the owners will get punished or not.

I am speechless and sad.



Krishanu Sadhu said...

Sir ,
I had heard this about four years back : One of my professors from JU was admitted in AMRI Salt Lake due to old age complications . While bedridden , he had overheard a conversation between the hospital staff regarding administering of some specific drugs to purposefully prolong his duration of stay in the hospital . He informed his relatives and therefore the evil ploy was averted .

I was very surprised to learn about this kind of devilish attitude. But then , these kind of tactics may be commonplace to extract more money from powerless patients. Probably it is a crime to fall ill in our country in the first place.


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Ironically, all the inspections, safeguards, licensing and certification criteria and checks are well in place. Whether it's the unsanctioned (as per original plans) room at the rooftop, a sneaky temporary toilet at the back of the house for servants, or a storage of flammable goods in the basement of a hospital - there's a good process in place to identify these problems. While there's a lot of diligence in 'catching' such cases, how they are dealt with is another story - these turn into a good source of 'income' year after year. therefore, problems better not solved.

Have you’ll noticed a news story carried by TOI (I forgot to bookmark it and lost it)? There was a fire in the same AMRI facility recently. The security guard who called the fire brigade on that occasion was reprimanded and suspended for two weeks. The fire brigade wanted to do more investigation but were not allowed. Whether that influenced judgment in this case or not is a matter of debate – but in this case, there were numerous attempts by the staff to hush up, underplay, and to control the fire on their own - till it was too late. The fire brigade reported that they were called and brought in much late – the fire had been burning for long and got too hot for them to get near and control it.

Why would there be any hesitation and fear in seeking help from the professionals in these matters? In fact, not calling the police, fire truck or ambulance on time should be grounds of investigation and legal action.

Subhadip Dutta said...

Let me mention some incidents (some of which are known) about the callousness of the people who are associated with the AMRI hospital.

1. I had a friend in college whose father was never to become well. He had suffered from a stroke. His condition had become so serious that he was not being able to recognize anyone. We, undergraduate engineers, had understood that this person was not going to live any longer. My friend’s family got him admitted in AMRI. The doctors kept him for 2 weeks in the ICU, extracted about something more than 6 lakh rupees from their family and finally let the man die. They were given just false hopes that the person would be cured.

2. There was one incident of a small fire in the AMRI hospital some months ago this year, for which a sensible guard had called the fire department. However, before the firemen had arrived, the fire was put out by the hospital staff and the guards. The person who had called the firemen was punished. From that incident the guards had learnt that the fire department need not be called unless the situation got out of control. What can you call people who punish someone for calling the fire department when there is an incident of a fire, be it small or be it big?

3. This very year, the fire department had warned the hospital authorities twice, once earlier this year and the second time after the incident of the small fire (which hospital authorities themselves took control of) in September, that the inflammable articles and the oxygen cylinders should be removed from the basement. However, the authorities did not take heed of the warning – this is one of West Bengal’s super-speciality hospitals.

And lastly, I do not know about what the newspapers in West Bengal are letting the people know, but Delhi newspapers tell that the death toll has risen to 91 from 89. The count is expected to rise.

Rajdeep said...

Can understand you turning your back on that stupid hospital.

I hope for once the culprits get the severest punishment. Given our propensity to forget, that may not happen, or there will be some other news to divert attention.

I have even heard of people being kept for days on life-support systems after the person has already died to extract money.

A few populist tamashas can never rid corruption. The guilty must be punished. They should be made to stand in front of the media, full face on to the cameras and publicly appologize as they do in some advanced countries.

Also, there should be a probe and licenses of all other hospitals and public places not conforming strictly to safety standards should also be canceled without delay.

The sense of despair some people have is understandable. The wonderful India we all dream of will not happen in our lifetimes. During the freedom struggle, a lot of great men and women sacrificed their lives believing that their next generation will live extraordinary lives in a great country. But generations have passed and we only have a few trinkets to show for "progress"! And a country no one really talks about or takes seriously except for some back office work.

Neha Sharma said...

Exactly in the year March 25th 1911,that is a century back,one Triangle Garment Factory in New York, was gutted by fire wherein 146 work ers perished including 129 women workers among them.And that was the starting point of giving a cleanest working facility with the highest standard of Safety for the workers, free from any harassment and tension.
But what happened in India is most tragic inci dent of fire in a Hospital where more than 90 patients perished.What an irony it is to hap pen in a Hospital meant to save the lives and not to destroy the lives.Would we learn a les son from the this gruesome incident like the Americans,to provide a clean and safe work environment for all?

Ankit said...

This is where I love China ... For all the ills plaguing the Chinese society, the guilty is still punished- swiftly and proportionately to the crime committed.. Some months back, few guys were caught adulterating baby food - and they were shot by 'firing squad' within 15 days... That is how it ought to be here where people are completely spoiled by over-indulgence of a meak democratic system..
I must confess I am extremely frustrated and depressed by the turn of events.. and imagine, the same AMRI staffers are now demonstrating that they will lose jobs unless the hospital is allowed to re-open and resume the business of cold murders..
Whenever such incidents happen,my belief is reinforced in our being anything third world country under the delusion of being developed blessed only by swanky malls and geeky youth carrying the latest brand of touch phones..
Alas, I can only ruminate and critic - but cannot change anything.. or if I ever have that power of change agent bestowed on me then the first thing I would change is this system of democracy - where people are only concerned about their rights with no regards to responsibilities.. We are not ready for democracy yet or maybe the system does not work where people only look for loopholes and easy shortcuts ...

May the dead not rest in peace and rise as Phoenix to destroy all the evil creatures of AMRI who were responsible for the tragedy - for the living cannot help here..


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I was waiting for some more comments to come in before butting in, but I really have to ask, Ankit: was that a very mature comment? Do you seriously think a) that shooting a few people will solve the problem, b) that we shan't be proving merely that we (society as a whole, or the legal system) are as bad as the criminals, c) whether you seriously think China has managed to become a less corrupt country as a result of such draconian measures, d) whether or not much less savage but much more strictly applied laws would do the trick (such as every guilty person knowing that he will be caught, lose his job, and maybe go to jail for several years), e) that if we want real results, it is not more important to catch and punish the big fish (the directors and managers who had supposedly warned the security guards not to be over-eager to call the police and firemen) than the men at the bottom of the rung?

One sad sign of our society - and that includes many of us, supposedly educated people - is that we react violently too easily out of a sense of sheer frustration and despair. Whenever a bus runs over a pedestrian, mob rule decrees that the bus be burnt and the driver killed if possible. Has that reduced the frequency of road accidents below the normal level in civilized countries, where mob lynching is sternly restrained?

Would you honestly want to live in China, or Afghanistan under the taliban, in preference to India? I won't. I, for one, would like to assert strongly that while we have every right to criticize and condemn whatever we find to be wrong and unjust, this blog is very firmly against spreading knee-jerk, violent, destructive ideas of any sort. That is precisely why I am so strongly against both the Anna Hazare and the Maoist type of problem-solvers, though I can see much that is right about their criticisms.

Shilpi said...

I wouldn't have known about this if it weren't for your blog, Suvro da, but I was thinking about fire safety measures in connection to your India post.

I was in college when there was a fire in a pre-historic mental asylum in Tamil Nadu, and patients had died because they'd been kept chained to their beds. There were other fires at around the same time - and in Calcutta too - but this is the one that made me feel sick.

In the current instance, those directors should be charged on grounds of criminal negligence, the hospital administrators and supervisors should have formal police charges directed against them as well if they were the ones who forbade the security guards to call the fire department, and the security guards should also be questioned further as to why they didn't immediately report the fire and who had forbidden them. If the directors "didn't know" or couldn't be bothered to know that a hospital needs to have fire safety measures that are implemented (and not airy-fairy things on paper) so that patients - in one of the premier and most expensive hospitals - don't choke to death, and still insist like insane creatures that all their "papers" were in order, then as you point out they should not be allowed to have anything to do with running a hospital and making money while at it. A road-side paan shop, maybe.

And it can't simply be the population (although maybe that indeed reduces the sanctity of human life at some level) that makes people so blastedly unconcerned. No phone calls made before three hours? Security guards who allegedly ran away? Patients dying because they couldn't get out of the darkness? Poor and pathetic equipment to deal with a fire even after the fire engines arrive (I think it takes far greater courage to be a fireman in India than in any developed country)? And some of us still want to believe that uneducated imbeciles should be allowed to run workplaces and make the millions too?

And at a broader level it's what you point out, Suvro da. There's no awareness at the level of the collective consciousness, and this will be treated as a single, isolated case. But how can there be awareness if individuals who set the rules and regulations and those who are in power are blissfully unconcerned until some horrific mishap occurs? And we rarely have the right person in places that matter.

I have the bad feeling that even if the CM does withdraw the license of that hospital, she herself will be forced somehow to hand it back without creating too much of a fuss because people higher up will be goading her...

Shilpi said...

If I may, I'll mention a couple of things that came to my head upon reading Neha's comment and Ankit's comment.

Although I have indeed laughed, joked, and half-joked and more than a couple of times about the US paranoia regarding fire hazards, I also unstintingly admire the absolute need for fire-safety measures (among other things) that is firmly built into the national psyche, and it shows at the institutional and individual level. Better to be safe than sorry is the motto and one cannot be too careful when it comes to fires is how the Americans see it.

Neha, I myself only got to know about the fire that changed the US laws on workplace safety only some 6/7 years ago (and I still don't always remember the exact date)! Some social scientists have pointed out that (in spite of some of the genuinely good laws in place), workplace safety laws are violated again and again, and too many times in what is an economically developed country - and sometimes with little to no punishment or some minor fine - but I too feel that the violations can't quite be compared to the ones in our country. And of course, off-shoring is one of the consequences of rigorous workplace laws in the US....

Ankit - I really wouldn't love China so fast. Suvro da's already pointed out some of the problems in what you're saying, and I'll add a bit too. Too often, the wrong people are punished - as in the recent and most publicised instance last year of the famous artist, Ai Weiwei who was first beaten up because he went around prodding why school buildings had crumpled (any guesses why?) and killed children (of course, according to official reports the death toll was negligible) during the Siachen earthquake in 2009. Then this year, he "disappeared". And this is just one case that has come to light - and that too, most likely because the artist was famous enough outside China. And remember, he was "just" an artist - not even a social critic. I've also talked, over the years, with enough of sensible Chinese students (who indeed think beyond buying the latest gadgets) to know that regular people (lacking proper party connections) do not have a nice deal at all. A democracy is far from perfect, especially when we have a teeming middle-class which is supposedly educated but is on an average non-knowledgeable, cannot see facts, lacks a developed conscience, utterly lacks humility, and also sympathy and empathy in equal measure, is only too quick to say "let's kill..." (a very common sentiment right after a terrorist attack too), and are big-talkers but it's only when democracy is missing in a nation that we know what that means.
And think about this for a moment too: do you think you'd have been reading this blog on the internet if India weren't a democracy? Do you think the blog-writer would have been allowed to maintain a public blog such as this in a non-democratic nation? Even with India being a democracy, I wince sometimes and I'm not given to wincing easily. And it's certainly not easy to be a genuine social critic. Most of us assume that it's easier simply because we have such inflated and smart opinions of ourselves. We wouldn't know what to do or what to change or where to begin and yet we like to imagine that we know what we would do if we had the power to change things because we have some wrong-headed and ghastly opinions.

And here's a little link that is relevant to the above on at least two counts. While many of us Indians were all gung-ho about Anna Hazare's movement to essentially curb democracy, some in China, with little hope, have been trying to bring in some....

Suvro da, wrote the comment through the week but I didn't get around to sending it sooner. And I can quite see why you walked out of the hospital...

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Good points Suvro on how to use reason and logic to identify problem people and processes and then the corrective measures and remedies required. Emotion, passion and actions based solely on these two is neither recommended nor does it work.

Reminded of an amusing bit on burning buses. My first boss (first job after graduating) at a large engineering consulting firm in Kolkata used to talk about this. He used to say very common sense and obvious things but in contrast to the stupidity of the actions he talked about, they seemed painfully ironical. He would say- "I don't know why people burn the buses when there is a mishap. The bus is a machine, an inanimate object. The bus didn't actually misbehave or malfunction on it's own to kill people. They are public property, you, I and even the people destroying them have paid for it!"
So true. Funnily enough, burning and destroying buses add to the losses and costs, which partially affects the rise of fares. As we all know, every fair hike has a series of protests and strikes- maybe even some damage. Strange.

However, no society seems to be different in these matters. Last June, Vancouver, Canada saw a shameless and now internationally infamous episode of rioting, looting, destruction, mayhem and arson after the loss of a hockey game. Mostly young adults, from well-off families, carrying out 'brave' and 'daredevil' acts- facebook recognition and fame being the main motivation in most cases. Thousands of spectators of the just finished game, who should have dispersed immediately (requested repeatedly by police) at first signs of trouble, hung around and formed a large protective cordon around the rioters as they moved and carried out the carnage (police couldn't use too much force and risk a stampede). And what were they doing? educated, matured adults, some with families and kids? Well, being part of the international media event and taking pictures (nowadays even toddlers have something with a camera) for their facebook pages of course. Indirectly and in some cases directly, they added to the problem, even admiring and cheering the rioters to bigger frenzies.

Shilpi said...

In regard to Mr. Mukherjee's comment, I'll very politely beg to differ.

I think it's as Miss Marple said, human nature is the same (or remarkably similar?) all across the globe. Yet societies indeed do differ. How that happens is really still a mystery to me.

To say that societies are no different would probably be missing some of the key differences that are clearly there between India and countries like the US and Canada. For instance, in the US, a hit-and-run is a crime (with the specifics differing from state to state) but (and maybe so) people on the roads would not try to beat up a bus driver and a bus driver would hardly try racing away from the scene of the crime. It's the same with DUI cases. The law in the US is extremely clear and very strictly enforced. But in India, who cares when people go around driving drunk?

Maybe this goes off-track - but I think that societies indeed do differ, in some instances, in the sort of laws they adopt based on what they decide to value as a collective. The breach (such as mob violence, mob frenzy, and more) does prove that human nature is a volatile thing and similar across nations and races - but these incidents (apart from maybe college hazing) become an exception at the societal level through strictly enforced laws (even though all may not be perfect and some may be far from perfect, and some may not be as strictly applied or even wrongly applied...).

I can't quite imagine an incident like the one discussed in the above blogpost happening in the US. It saddens me to say this but we have a long way to go even in terms of making basic societal level changes which can improve the day-to-day living conditions in our country...Someone like me is sort of reduced to just praying.

Ankit said...


Thanks for sharing your views on my thoughts.. You are right in the sense that there is lot of things not-so-good about China, and if you ask me if I want to live there, certainly not.. It was more of an expression of frustration and despondency having seen a society stoop to lower levels of efficiency and empathy with each passing day.. We do enjoy the freedom to express ourselves, just like you pointed out to blogging freely and without fear being one.... Very well said...

However Sir's comparison of punishing the criminals of AMRI to burning a bus may not be really analogous just as equating China to Taliban and Afghanistan is like stretching it a bit too far..

Shilpi said...

Ankit, Well you wanted to "shoot" the offending people (the staffers? or somebody else?) at gunpoint, didn't you? So how is mob lynching and burning buses terribly different? Or does the first become more civilized because it's done by the State authorities in an organized way or the head of some dictator state or an absolute monarchy?

And no, it's not a stretch comparing China to Afghanistan. It's the basic issue of democracy, and whether and what sort of freedom is upheld by the law. China is, on the surface, far more suave and seemingly polite in what it decides to do to its own citizens (or in places that it decides to take over - think of Tibet, for instance) while being no less brutal in actual practice, and sure, it doesn't discriminate between men and women when it's at it (and no doubt, if it's some sort of a "choice" between dying at gunpoint or being manhandled and then stoned - I'll take the former). And of course China has become a top gun in matters economic....and that makes most nations of the world demur in making such impolite comparisons.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

As I said not long ago, we only seem to have a 'choice of nightmares'.

The latest news is that the lawyers acting on behalf of the arrested directors are trying to get the charges reduced to 'causing death by negligence' rather than 'culpable homicide not amounting to murder', which will attract a punishment of upto a maximum of two years in jail instead of a possible life term...

santanu Chatterjee said...

Well, going by the last paragraph, i think it is high time Mr. Ratan Tata - or should i say Mr. Cyrus Mistry take cover. Just in case there is a fire in their cancer centre in Kolkatta. They are in for big bad trouble.

But what about the railway accidents? I think going by the same theory; the then railway minister and now our honorable CM should be fighting a court case and languishing in jail. It would have been interesting to see the government's lawyers stating 'this is culpable homicide not amounting to murder'. In the meantime i will definitely not mind the (by then the former) railway minister's lawyers stating this was a merely 'causing death by negligence'.

Please note here that I do not have the slightest sympathy for Mr. Todi. He is really a big fool not to have taken care of his business well. After all, this was his business. How can one neglect the source of one's income? I believe he should get the harshest punishment for the aforesaid reason and not for any other crime.

Rishav Mukherjee said...

Respected Sir.
Sir after reading your blog for over 3 times sir I have a question. Sir why we Indians only face such a crisis and not others? Why we so lazy and why are we not like others?If others can rectify why cant we Sir?Why?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You are very young, so the story has hurt you very deeply, Rishav (I am glad that it has, by the way: most people your age neither know nor care as long as this sort of thing doesn't happen to family members, and sometimes not even then!). Well, it's not quite true that it happens only in India, but it is certainly true that we have one of the worst records in the world, and also that we as a country are determined never to learn permanent lessons and plug loopholes once and for all. I think that's the whole point: as a society, we have decided that it's best not to think, worry and care about such things, because it supposedly makes life too much of a strain! And if this mindset doesn't change, this sort of horror will keep repeating. You might have noticed in the papers today and yesterday how poor mothers have been delivering children on the road and dying in Kolkata. Despite all the pretended horror and loud public criticism, it's a given that it will all quickly die down and then everything will be business as usual, so nobody, in government or without, need bother about it - especially in our social class, which, of course, can assure itself that we are so well-off and well-connected that our own family members will never suffer like this...