Ranjona Banerji: Ask no question, hear no lies

Aug 16, 2017, 05:33 IST | Ranjona Banerji

As MP, Yogi had raised several questions about Japanese encephalitis. Why, then, was the bill to the oxygen supplier not paid in spite of 40 reminders? Pic/AFP
As MP, Yogi had raised several questions about Japanese encephalitis. Why, then, was the bill to the oxygen supplier not paid in spite of 40 reminders? Pic/AFP

It's not that we don't know that public hospitals in India can be demonic or dismal or both. It's not that we don't know that public health gets as little attention as possible in government budget allocations. It's not that we don't know that thanks to insurance companies, private healthcare costs are unreasonable and often just criminal. So why are we horrified by what happened at the BRD Hospital in Gorakhpur?

That in a few short days, 65 children died, that 30 died in one night because the hospital's oxygen supply ran out because of unpaid bills despite at least 40 reminders — definitely very upsetting. But even worse: The reaction of the government in Uttar Pradesh, the reaction of the Centre and the reactions of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

It is true that Yogi Adityanath has been the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for a few months only. But he has been the Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur for five consecutive terms. He runs a temple in Gorakhpur, as well as a militant Hindutva group. And our hyperventilating TV media fell over itself to describe to us how well he knew Gorakhpur, how powerful he was there and how all the cows, calves and goats of Gorakhpur loved him dearly.

Yogi Adityanath's first much publicised actions after becoming chief minister were to start an 'anti-Romeo' squad to stop men from sta­lking women and to shut down all the illegal abattoirs to save cattle from being killed. Let us set aside the various appalling side effects of these actions. And let us ask why the BRD Hospital in his own constituency was of so little consequence.

As MP, he had raised several questions about Japanese encephalitis, we are told by the BJP's vast and enviable PR machinery, both paid and voluntary. And yet, after he became chief minister, what was done about it? Why was the bill to the oxygen supplier not paid for months in spite of 40 reminders? UP's health minister is Siddharth Nath Singh, the grandson of India's second and one of its most loved and admired prime ministers, Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Singh's grandfather was famous for his strong, silent moral stances — most notably resigning as railway minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet after a railway accident. Anyone who saw Singh on TV after the news of the deaths would have seen only entitlement and arrogance — the sure signs of a politician who — like so many others — cares more for his standing than the people he has sworn to serve.

We were also horrified because the state passed the buck as far as it co­uld, changed the reasons for the dea­ths, slapped a criminal case against the oxygen supplier and then clai­med that lack of oxygen was not the reason for the deaths. The CM, a gre­at proponent of the prime minister's Clean Indian Mission, blamed lack of sanitation and open defecation for the deaths. The BJP president, Amit Shah, informed the nation that such incidents happen all the time. The prime minister whose heart breaks on Twitter after terror attacks in Manchester and forest fires in Portugal remained silent for too long.

The parents of the children described in horrific detail how their babies died, gasping for breath. Are they all liars according to the state administration? Or who exactly is lying to us? To put matters in perspective, two days after the 30 children died, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh ordered the police to prepare for a "grand" celebration for Janmashtami, the birth of Lord Krishna. I leave you to contemplate the sensitivity of such exemplary and extraordinary thought, given the circumstances.

As I write this, there are flags going up with pride all over India and people standing to sing our beautiful national anthem (except for those who have, apparently, chosen the "national song" instead). August 15, 2017, was our 71st Independence Day and we have now reached a remarkable and celebratory landmark of 70 years of independence from British rule.

And yet, old restrictive systems, ingrained inefficiency, political chicanery and social oppression co­n­tinue to dog us. In addition, there was bloodshed in our birth, as many remind us, and we have not yet sought or got closure for that and still suffer from its effects. So here's to freedom from divisive thought and actions and freedom from the petty and parochial!

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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