Travels through the Hindi belt: In Gorakhpur, 2 doctors suspended after ghastly mishandling of encephalitis reflect on their lives gone awry

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  

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If you plot the distance between Delhi and Gorakhpur with Lucknow as the stopover on Google maps, it throws up an elongated "L", covering nearly 850 kilometers. Dr Rajiv Misra and Dr Purnima Shukla know that "L" like the back of their hands. The couple in their 60s has been stuck with that route for the past year. Their medical treatment transpires in Delhi, the criminal case against them is on in Gorakhpur, and a departmental inquiry hangs over their head in Lucknow.

Both of them were suspended after dozens of babies suffocated to death in August 2017, allegedly due to a lack of oxygen at Baba Raghav Das Medical College and Hospital in Uttar Pradesh's Gorakhpur. Misra was the principal of the college, while his wife Shukla, a homeopathic doctor, wasn't even employed over there.

On the evening of 10 August, 2017, an alarm went off at the hospital. Liquid oxygen reserves were running out. Eight days before the alarm went off, the supplier had threatened to stop providing liquid oxygen. The state-run hospital had not paid its bills that had been pending for six months. Misra, as the principal of the college, wrote a series of letters to the state officials, warning that "patients would die" if the money does not come through. The state authorised funding on 9 August, which took two days to reach the supplier. Unfortunately, enough time had passed to rock the conscience of Uttar Pradesh, and the rest of the country. Thirty-five children died at the hospital in two days.

 Travels through the Hindi belt: In Gorakhpur, 2 doctors suspended after ghastly mishandling of encephalitis reflect on their lives gone awry

Dr Purnima Shukla and Dr Rajiv Misra. Firstpost/Parth MN

Every monsoon, the Baba Raghav Das Medical College and Hospital is inundated with babies suffering from encephalitis, which is a mosquito-borne disease. Hundreds of babies have been dying at the hospital's cramped rooms for more than a decade. But August 2017 was different, because it involved the hospital running out of liquid oxygen.

Misra, 64, was charged with culpable homicide, and Shukla, 60, found herself being accused of conspiracy. They were taken into custody towards the end of August 2017. They are also suspected of delaying the payment for kickbacks from the oxygen supplier.

KK Gupta, DGME, responsible for approving the hospital budget, had told the media that Misra had displayed a "callous attitude" and should have paid the bills even though the state hadn't released the money yet. Misra says it was not within his powers to do so. The departmental inquiry is supposed to determine culpability.

Misra spent 10 months, while Shukla spent 11 months in prison before eventually receiving bail. They have been out for about a year, but their miseries have hardly ended. They are out of work, and until the departmental inquiry clears them, they will remain out of work.

"It has been two years now," says Misra, "We are cooperating with the authorities. We want to be reinstated in our jobs as soon as possible."

They have just arrived from an inquiry hearing in Lucknow. At 9 pm, they sit for an interview at their residence in Gorakhpur. "It takes five hours to reach from here," says Shukla, "It has been a long day. And we have a flight to Delhi tomorrow morning to get check-ups done."

Misra is struggling with liver cirrhosis, while Shukla has trouble with hypertension and blood pressure. "I am diabetic," says Misra, "When I was in jail, they did not maintain the temperature of my insulin doses. It aggravated into liver cirrhosis. Purnima's hypertension is also a result of this [negligence]."

Even though they are out of work, they are busier than most, navigating between Delhi, Lucknow and Gorakhpur. "We are here one day, there the next," says Shukla, "We have not known peace for a while. We are getting old. They ask us to appear two or three times a month, where we justify ourselves over and over again. It is humiliating to explain we are not responsible for the horrible things we are accused of."

Apart from the physical and psychological toll the case has taken on them, the professional cost of character assassination is immeasurable. "If he had retired in normal conditions, private medical colleges would have picked him up immediately as principal or pathology professor or Head of Department," says Shukla, vouching for her husband, "Until the inquiry concludes, we cannot explore any options."

Shukla, as a homeopathy doctor, will find it hard to resume her practice after being out of touch for two years. Her clinic in Gorakhpur sits empty and abandoned. "A year's break matters a lot. It disturbs the clientele," she says.

Those who have followed the case say the entire episode has been a farce, and an indictment of the justice system. The investigations that followed the deaths of newborns are laced with discrepancies. Several government investigations concluded the deaths did not transpire due to lack of oxygen. But Shukla's bail plea had been rejected in May 2018, where a judge cited the lower court that held that a lack of oxygen was the reason for the deaths. The hospital did not conduct any postmortems either to determine the exact cause.

Initially, the parents had told the media that their kids died due to the paucity of oxygen. But when charges were later framed against the couple, it included eerily similar testimonies of parents that suggested their babies died due to natural causes.

Critics of hospital administration believe Misra and Shukla, along with a few others, have been made scapegoats. When this reporter met the couple in Gorakhpur Central Jail in June 2018, during an earlier assignment, Misra had categorically called it a "politically-motivated case". At the derelict, colonial-era jail, Misra had looked frail, and weak. He was housed with hardened criminals, some of them had even killed a jailer. "They would share stories of their 'bravery'," laughs Misra.

Shukla, on the other hand, was in with 75 other inmates in her cell. "I would spend my time meditating," she says, "I even suffered an injury during my imprisonment. The toilet door of the jail was broken, and I fell down while trying to hold the door."

The couple repeatedly applied for bail to escape the horrors of prison. Their son Purak, 32, a surgeon based in Delhi, had taken off work to get his parents out. "Even though Rajiv's health was in bad shape, they [the court] waited till the very last moment to approve his bail," says Shukla.

He added that authorities had targeted them in other ways as well. "We did not even get our rightful salaries until March last year," says Misra. "If an employee is suspended, he or she is entitled to get 75 percent of basic salary as life maintenance allowance. In March 2018, we started receiving 50 percent of the salary. After writing consistent letters, last month onwards, we got 75 percent."

Shukla says if she is not cleared until August, that money too will stop. "I am due for retirement in August," she says, "If they do not conclude the inquiry by then, I will end up retiring as a suspended employee. I will not get my provident fund, gratuity or pension. It would be a financial crisis."

More than money, Misra says he is personally hurt with how things have unfolded. His association with the Gorakhpur Medical College dates back to 1974. "I started off as an MBBS student, then I did my postgraduation from here," he says, "I got a job as a professor and then rose up the ranks to become the principal. Everybody knows me here."

Therefore, the case has come as a big blow to his image and prestige. "People know I am not guilty," says Misra, "Since I have been released from prison, they have come and expressed support and empathy privately. But they are scared to endorse us publicly. I dedicated my life to the college. We earned our respect through hard work. And this is what we get towards the end of our life."

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 08:20:04 IST