This August will mark the second anniversary of the Gorakhpur tragedy, where more than 325 children died in the space of a month at a government-run hospital in the Uttar Pradesh city. This included the deaths of thirty children in a 48-hour period at the beginning of the month. Now, one of the doctors who was booked after the tragedy wants to change the narrative.
“Dr Khan…was hailed as a hero by many reports because of his actions during the tragedy. He paid out of pocket to deliver medical oxygen cylinders; by his own account, he collected 250 cylinders for use at the hospital. This did not stop him from being removed from his post and booked under charges of medical negligence”
Dr Kafeel Khan was a lecturer in the Department of Paediatrics at the Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College until he was suspended in the aftermath of the tragedy, which is said to have arisen because of a shortage of medical oxygen. This was caused by non-payment of dues by the hospital to the company supplying the medical oxygen, who cut the supply. Many children being treated at the hospital for encephalitis died, as encephalitis patients require a 24-hour supply of oxygen. This was a fact suppliers reminded officials of in one of several letters sent to remind them of the unpaid dues.
Dr Khan, who was the nodal officer in charge of the encephalitis ward at the hospital at the time of the tragedy, was hailed as a hero by many reports because of his actions during the tragedy. He paid out of pocket to deliver medical oxygen cylinders; by his own account, he collected 250 cylinders for use at the hospital. This did not stop him from being removed from his post and being booked under charges of medical negligence. He was jailed for nine months before being released on bail after the Allahabad High Court ruled there was no evidence of medical negligence on his part.
The Uttar Pradesh state government denied that oxygen shortage were responsible for the deaths. Contrary to this, a subsequent report by the Gorakhpur district administration attributed the children’s deaths to oxygen deprivation. It did, however, largely exculpate the state government in the matter – even though, according to a report by The Wire, letters about the impending oxygen shortage were sent to the office of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
“The legacy of the Gorakhpur tragedy is evident. What makes it all the more tragic is that such incidents are hardly isolated occurrences: they are commonplace across India.”
For Dr Khan, this is not enough.
“The moment I got that WhatsApp message on that fateful August 10, 2017 night,” Dr Khan wrote in prison, “I did everything a doctor, a father, a responsible CITIZEN OF INDIA would/should do. I tried to save each and every life that was in danger due to sudden stoppage of liquid oxygen.” Now, he says, the investigation into the deaths is going nowhere and is calling for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) step in.
Speaking in Bihar, Dr Khan told reporters that “those responsible for the tragedy including top health department officials and the minister concerned, are going about scot free.” He added that such officials continue to head the investigation, which has been ongoing for eighteen months.
The legacy of the Gorakhpur tragedy is evident. What makes it all the more tragic is that such incidents are hardly isolated occurrences: they are commonplace across India. An inquiry of the kind demanded by Dr Khan could go some way to identifying the infrastructural and administrative inadequacies which facilitate such tragedies, and may inspire similar inquests in other states where similar occurrences have been observed – hopefully leading to a situation where such occurrences are no longer the norm.