The Fire at AMRI
( Photo Courtesy: Zee News)
I was returning to KL from Penang. The flight was a trifle late and I was settling down in the cab listening idly to the news in Bahasa Malaysia when I heard the name of Kolkata and then hospital and finally bomba (fire). While I am not too good in Bahasa Malaysia, I realised that there had been some fire in a hospital In Calcutta.
As I reached home, my wife told me that there had been a massive fire in AMRI and the internet told us the rest. The Malaysian news channels showed us gory images as did the BBC and many others. It appears unbelievable. 91 dead; mostly patients. The sorry fact that our public buildings and disaster management services have no modern equipment or protocols was again exposed to the public eye. It is only one of a long litany of such fires: Stephen Court and the Nandaram Building are still green in our memory.
Perhaps even more nauseating than the disaster is the media circus that has immediately ensued. The Media as usual have it all down pat. The staff of the hospital, (by which they mean mainly the Doctors and nurses) did not do anything to help the patients. They seem to be unhappy that only a few hospital staff perished in the fire, they would be happier, it appears if dozens of doctors and nurses had died.
The Telegraph , which I read regularly in the internet edition, has gone to town, telling us heartrending stories of people who died. The stores are horrific and make us hang our heads down in shame. The guilt has been fixed by the media. The directors of the hospital are at fault. Lawyers, who, one would think would be conversant with the principle that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, have refused to allow anybody to represent the accused. How this is possible in a civilized society is beyond imagination. The idiot fringe of the political firmament has also gone into action. The PPP model is at fault. The PPP model must be scrapped. All the hospitals must be dragged down to the level of the Begundanga primary health centre; only then will true socialism be achieved.
We are all aware that this indignation, the anger and angst will all die down very soon. If Anna’s antics become more compelling, it will die down in a few days time, if not in a few weeks. Then it will be business as usual. I have worked in many hospitals in Calcutta and elsewhere over the past twenty five years. Other than the two Manipal group hospitals that I worked in, I never was part of any fire or disaster drill. I am sure that no such plan exists for Medical College or NRS or for that matter for the Anandaloke Hospital in Siliguri where I spent my last few clinical years. In fact I was just imagining what would happen if there was a fire in the basement of the Anandaloke Hospital. I cannot imagine anybody getting out of the the hospital alive.
The fault is in the Administration. Everybody is fully aware that the rules are flouted at every single opportunity and at every level. The private sector does it, so do the Government institutions. Does the venerable Writers’ Buildings have a fire management plan? I am sure it does not, and if it does, it is just a paper exercise and no one will be able to put it in place if there really is a disaster. This is typical of what I have now come to regard as the Third World mentality. The so called Chalta hai attitude or, if you like “we are like that only.” Nobody really believes that anything will happen, that public areas will become safer. We will live dangerously as we have always done, making brief and ridiculous spectacles of righteous indignation on occasion.
Another feature of the ongoing media circus intrigues me. There seems to be a unanimous condemnation of the hospital staff for not being heroes, not dying in the attempt to save patients. I can understand relatives of those who have died feeling this way, but at the risk of being politically extremely incorrect, I must mention that I am quite sure that if I was caught up in a raging inferno, I would most likely have concentrated on saving myself first. It is possible that I may have shown up to be a hero, plunging into the flames again and again to save somebody, but I doubt it. However I would also refuse to be blamed for this. The job of saving people is that of the disaster management people, they are trained in this or should be and have the necessary equipment. Did they function as they should have? I am quite sure that they did not, If they did, why was it that the local people had to break in when the Jadavpur Police Station is a few metres away and the fire services also close by? It is no surprise that the emergency numbers did not work. They never do. Everybody knows thus, it is scarcely a closely guarded secret. But why did they not? Will they work in future?
What is now needed is a task force of just 2-3 people who will be tasked to check every single public building in town. All; of them must confirm to laws or close down, no matter how many livelihood’s are affected and how many poor families are “forced to starve” . (I can just see the TV channels going berserk if a major hospital is forced to close.) Just as they would have done if the AMRI itself was forced to close the day before the fire took place for violation fire safety norms. If we want to develop, we have to confirm to First world norms no matter how painful or expensive it is.
The alternative is to have utterly disgraceful incidents again and again, to shout and yell for some time and then fall asleep until the next disgraceful event occurs.