The AMRI Disaster
The Killer Fumes of Corporate Greed
The morning of December 9 came as a huge shock to Kolkata and the entire country. More than 90 lives – including old-age patients in various stages of treatment and recovery – were lost in a fatal disaster in the AMRI hospital in Dhakuria in south Kolkata on that fateful morning. The disaster was triggered by a major fire that broke out in the basement of the super-speciality hospital in the pre-dawn hours, but it was the toxic fume engulfing the multi-storey building which claimed most of the lives. Every report emanating from the site of the disaster since then has compounded that shock and turned it into utter shame and indignation. The disaster can only be called a huge corporate crime with the state being equally complicit.
Consider these facts. The fire broke out at around 3 AM, but it took the hospital authorities nearly two hours to inform the fire-brigade. The reason behind this inexplicable delay lies apparently in another case of fire which had broken out in the basement of the same building two months ago on October 8 – the security guard who had then promptly informed the fire-station had incurred the wrath of the hospital administration and was suspended for two weeks. So this time round the staff apparently tried to douse the fire themselves before informing the fire-brigade. Valuable time had already been lost and the fire-brigade found itself ill-equipped when it finally reached the spot after negotiating the narrow and overcrowded approach roads in this busy neighbourhood
of the city.
The fire-alarm system of the hospital did not work as it was apparently disabled by smokers! It now also turns out that the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH), the apex agency that grants accreditation for hospitals, had refused to renew the hospital’s accreditation because the hospital did not conform to expected safety standards and fire-fighting norms. The basement of the hospital had been turned into a veritable dumping place for all kinds of inflammable materials and radiotherapy instruments. Reports have it that the hospital had been warned by the fire-fighting department during an inspection in the month of July and the hospital authorities had promised to clear the basement in two months. There was never a follow-up to check if the ‘promise’ had been kept. According to the NABH CEO, the hospital also did not have the required safety certification from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board for two new machines it had recently procured for its
Having systematically violated all relevant rules and standards, the AMRI management also exhibited a flagrant disregard for basic human values even in the face of the macabre dance of death. The local people who were the first to rush to the spot and extend a helping hand risking their own lives were not allowed in. Family members of patients who desperately tried to rescue their dear ones were stopped and asked to first clear all dues! While some members of the AMRI staff also died in the tragedy, most top members of the AMRI management were conspicuously absent from the scene, issuing empty condolence statements and trying to silence the angry people by announcing some token compensation for the dead.
How did an irresponsible entity like AMRI that had Advanced Medical Research as a part of its name (probably with a view to claiming more benefits and concessions from the state) but epitomized nothing but corporate greed and arrogance come to be treated as a ‘premier super-speciality healthcare provider’? Indeed, the rise and expansion of AMRI since the middle of 1990s symbolized the changing complexion of the healthcare ‘industry’ in the era of neo-liberalism – where healthcare became an expensive consumer product traded in a thoroughly corporatized and commercialized environment. The site where AMRI made super-profit by fleecing patients earlier housed a state-run polyclinic where the common people could expect quality medicare at affordable rates. In the 1990s, the state-run polyclinic gave way to AMRI – a public-private partnership project in which the state government initially held 51% share.
Over the years, the share of the state came down progressively to less than 2%. Meanwhile the head of one of the private groups owning and controlling the hospital, Mr. Shravan Todi grew very close to the CPI(M) leadership and the Left Front government, even becoming a formal member of the CPI(M), and AMRI grew into a hospital chain with the state government providing heavily subsidized plots in prime locations. The AMRI is also co-owned by the Emami group of the Goenkas – also known to be close to the (CPIM). The bonhomie between the likes of Shravan Todi and the CPI(M) was of course nothing exceptional – it was of a piece with the kind of cosy ties that had evolved between the CPI(M) leadership and business establishments in different sectors, be it the jute and hosiery barons, private players in the power sector like the Goenkas or tycoons like the Tatas, Ambanis or the infamous Salim group of Indonesia.
The managers of the ruling TMC dispensation and the dominant media in West Bengal today are pointing fingers at the CPI(M) leadership for the growth of the greedy corporate culture epitomized by the AMRI. But we remember it very well that before Singur and Nandigram, the same media had been busy lauding the CPI(M) rulers for their pro-business attitude, marketing ‘brand Buddha’ as the most wonderful communist model in India! Also, the TMC-led Kolkata Corporation and fire service too can hardly wash their hands off their share of responsibility for the tragedy. And we are also acutely aware of the fact that under neo-liberalism all shades of governments in India have been busy promoting corporatization and commercialization in every sector of the economy and public service. The AMRIs are the norm in this policy environment. It is another matter that when things go horribly wrong, the rulers desperately seek to disown such erstwhile ‘success stories’ and treat them as villainous aberrations!
For the people of Kolkata and the whole of India, the lessons of the AMRI disaster are pretty straightforward. If we want to avoid a second disaster, we must free healthcare services from the killer fumes of corporate greed. The right to health and education must be upheld as fundamental rights of the people and the business-politics nexus must not be allowed to play with these rights.
Hooch Horror in Bengal
On the heels of the AMRI fire has come another terrible tragedy – the hooch (illicit liquor) tragedy at Sangrampur of South 24 Parganas, that has claimed 190 lives till date including that of an 8-year-old child, and the death toll continues to mount.
This latest tragedy highlighted the ruling TMC Government’s callousness once again. As the tragedy began to unfold, the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s first response was to disclaim the Government’s responsibility by blaming the deaths on a ‘social evil’! In other words, according to her, the Government had no responsibility to ensure that the lucrative business of bootlegging does not flourish and endanger lives!
Subsequently, as the death toll arose and angry people demolished the illegal hooch ‘theks’ and ransacked the houses of their owners, the Government was forced to change its stance and order an enquiry. However, the Chief Minister is yet even to pay a visit to Sangrampur, even as the appalling state of healthcare contributes to the death toll. This apathy is in stark contrast to Mamata’s show of promptitude in the case of the AMRI fire, and is a measure of how much her Government really cares for the
The hooch kingpin running the illicit liquor trade in the area is one ‘Badshah’, known to have enjoyed CPIM patronage in the earlier regime, and having shifted loyalty to the TMC with the change of guard. He is still absconding. In any case, Badshah is only the tip of the iceberg. There are estimated to be 27,000 illicit liquor brewers in the state – a whole illegal industry that thrives with the patronage
The government, doing nothing to ensure even prompt and adequate medical care, has merely announced Rs.2 lakh compensation for the victims’ families, and even that is yet to materialize.