Milind Deora Column: Gorakhpur tragedy reflects perils of ignoring real issues and voting along religious, ethnic lines

The tragedy at Gorakhpur, where 71 children have lost their lives since August 7 in BRD Medical College, is a harsh reminder of our ailing public health systems. The hospital is severely overburdened and continues to receive a fresh stream of patients even as the country fumed at the outbreak of this news.

The onus is on the state of Uttar Pradesh, traditionally characterised by poor governance standards and apathetic administration. Successive governments in the state have failed to utilise resources from the Centre to expand and augment medical facilities, the lack of which cause hospitals such as BRD with neonatal and encephalitis wards to be constantly overbooked and overburdened.

File image of the BRD Hospital in Gorakhpur. PTI

File image of BRD Hospital in Gorakhpur. PTI

There is much debate about the cause of these deaths – some attribute it to the perennial problem of encephalitis in the state while others insist that it was the disruption of piped oxygen supply in BRD that caused the multiple deaths. Either scenario does not absolve the state of any blame. If it is the former, governments have failed miserably in providing the infrastructure that is necessary to battle what is clearly a public health crisis in the state. If it is the latter, then it goes much beyond a lack of capacity, infrastructure or resources.

A shortage of oxygen supply due to non-payment of bills is a case of blatant negligence on the part of the state and medical authorities and could exist even if medical facilities with adequate beds and manpower were available in the state.

Quite problematically, it takes something of this magnitude to jolt our collective conscience. Over 26,000 cases of encephalitis have been reported in Uttar Pradesh since 2010 – which is nothing short of an epidemic – but issues like these will remain unrecognised and undebated till a sensational calamity, like seventy children perishing in a hospital due to administrative negligence, wakes us up from our oblivious slumber.

Consequently, up until recently, Gorakhpur was known not for being at the centre of the encephalitis outbreaks, since BRD is one of the only hospitals equipped with the facilities to treat the disease, but because it happens to be the state's Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's constituency.

This is why I also believe that the incident made national and international news, partly because it transpired in the chief minister's own backyard. The fact that he was a powerful local leader and an influential member of Parliament from Gorakhpur for several years raises glaring questions about the nature of governance and accountability in the state.

Even as this story was unfurling, some channels were debating whether Vande Mataram should be played in schools. This provides an insight into the kinds of issues we as a nation choose to politicise and debate, and which ones we choose to relegate to insignificance till disaster strikes.

Debates about cow vigilantism, religious fanaticism, reservations, language and ethnicity continue to take precedence over issues of healthcare, education, economy, infrastructure, and employment, which remain second fiddle. We don't debate our education systems till children are accidentally poisoned by a mid-day meal. We don't pay attention to airline or railway safety till negligence of protocol causes an accident.

We as a nation fail to focus on issues that matter and vote our representatives based not on performance, accountability and standards of governance, but along religious, ethnic and linguistic lines.

Consequently, it is these issues that become paramount, because that's what brings officials into power, and what their constituencies reward them for.

Evolved democracies, too, have a robust culture of debate around social issues of race, class and identity – the situation currently unfolding in Charlottesville in the United States is a testimony to that fact. But for voters in America, governance – not identity – determines their choice of candidate.

The quote that became the catchphrase for Bill Clinton's 1992 election campaign – "it's the economy, stupid” – encompasses the attitude of American voters. The economy, healthcare, education and job growth are political issues for the voters of the country, and these are the issues that they vote on.

The Indian voter fails to make a distinction between political and electoral issues. Adityanath, for instance, was voted to power in Uttar Pradesh purely on an emotive platform in an environment of polarisation. Till issues such as education, healthcare, economy and employment become electoral platforms, till we achieve a convergence of political and electoral concerns and begin to vote based on who would usher in the most effective and well-organised governance, little will change.

If an incident the likes of the Gorakhpur tragedy were to take place in an evolved democracy, the highest state authority (not just medical or administrative staff in the concerned hospital) responsible for the negligence would be investigated and sent to jail. In India, there is likely going to be an inquiry launched more as a tool of pacification or appeasement than motives of a genuine investigation, where a scapegoat is identified and the big fish escape unscathed, while we go back to debating frivolous issues that have little relevance to our future as a nation.


Published Date: Aug 18, 2017 01:41 pm | Updated Date: Aug 18, 2017 01:41 pm


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