The ‘horror hospital’ is a flaming metaphor for India

You could see yesterday’s horrific fire at the AMRI hospital in Kolkata as just a fire accident, and you would of course be right - in a literal sense.

But everything about the accident is a metaphor for how India works – or doesn’t work. From the abject disregard for human life to broken fire safety laws to the dereliction of duty of hospital staff, they all point to an India where, literally, anything goes.

In a larger sense too, the accident and our response to them show up a country that is eternally in fire-fighting mode, leaping from crisis to crisis like a cat on a hot tin roof, and responding with short-term “whatever works” expedient quick-fixes rather than solving root-cause problems.

After yesterday’s tragedy, our minds have been refreshed with invocations of the Uphaar cinema horror, the Kumbakonam fire mishap (in which nearly 100 school kids perished) and countless other incendiary accidents. What’s to say, years from now, when (god forbid) another fire accident claims man lives, we won’t resort to merely listing AMRI hospital too to that Hall of Horrors, without making any meaningful efforts to prevent such accidents.

The only time we think of fire safety equipment is after a major fire. Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

To my untrained mind, the photograph at left illustrates everything that is shameful about our crisis response in situations like these. It shows an elderly patient being ‘rescued’ by fire service personnel, but without appropriate equipment such as stretchers (and perhaps working within the limitations of cramped spaces), they have been forced to string the patient with a rudimentary rope - and lower her like a sack of potatoes. But I guess she must count herself lucky, because she is one of the ‘survivors’.

The only time we think of fire safety and rescue equipment is after a major fire happens. Within hours of yesterday’s tragedy, for instance, authorities in Kolkata were able to reel off everything that was wrong with the AMRI hospital’s emergency preparedness. There was no free access for firetenders to reach the buildings, the glass windows were sealed, there was no evacuation plan in the event of a crisis, and the fire alarms and smoke detectors didn’t work….

But if all this was known, why wasn’t anything done pre-emptively? Because, of course, we were dealing with other ‘fires’ and crises, each more compelling and demanding more urgent attention that the violation of fire safety laws in a reputed hospital seemed almost trivial.

In that larger sense, we are constantly fighting yesterday’s ‘fires’. And in the larger scheme of things, compared with a Maoist uprising, routine crib deaths in children’s hospitals, and, yes, grappling with the politics of FDI in retail, the absence of functional fire hydrants in an upmarket hospital doesn’t rank very high in our list of priorities.

Until a fire breaks out.

Horrific events such as this trigger an innate self-flagellation response in us: we go into paroxysms of ritual self-abuse that takes us further into a downward spiral of defeatism. There is really no need to add to it; yet, milestone events such as these also give us reason to reflect on our larger failings, and help us find common cause in the hope that we can go beyond short-term quick-fixes.

That way, we don’t always have to be in fire-fighting mode.