West Bengal witnessed twin man-made disasters just as the year 2011 was coming to a close. The December 09 tragic fire at Kolkata’s “super speciality” Advanced Medical and Research Institute (AMRI) has snuffed out lives of more than 90 people so far. The deceased are patients barring just four hospital staff. And if the fire was not enough, another catastrophe struck just four days later. At least 173 people died in Sangrampur and its adjourning villages in South 24 Parganas district after consuming toxic liquor. Those who died are the poorest of the poor like labourers, rickshaw-pullers and hawkers. Both the disasters are entirely man-made and could have been easily prevented. These two incidents put a question mark on the abysmal state of affairs in West Bengal.
AMRI hospital fire
Initial investigations suggest that the devastating fire in AMRI hospital - which was most likely triggered by an electric short-circuit - originated in the basement of the hospital. The basement meant to be a parking lot was apparently used for storing a vast amount of highly inflammable material like oxygen cylinders, PVC pipes, biochemical waste, wooden boxes, mattress, stock of diesel and other inflammatory material. All these are highly combustible.
It has been learnt that the hospital staff first played down the risk and wasted precious time by trying to douse the blaze on their own. That resulted in smoke getting sucked in by the central air-conditioning ducts. The toxic fumes soon engulfed the entire hospital building, slowly converting it into a death trap. When the hospital realised that that the situation was getting out of its control, they called the fire department.
No heed was paid to the patients who were shouting for help.
The local residents and patients’ kin who rushed to the spot were not allowed to get in as the security guards of the hospital apparently kept the gates locked from inside, preventing them from going inside for the victims’ rescue.
As the fire and fumes spread swiftly, the hospital staff abandoned the patients and managed to get away. All exit doors for patients were allegedly locked leaving them to choke to death.
By the time the fire brigade team reached the spot major damage had already been done. The fire brigade with the help of the locals evacuated and saved the injured from the jaws of death.
Meanwhile, starling facts related to the cause of the carnage have come to light. During an inspection by fire department officials in September 29, AMRI was warned about the dangers lurking in its basement and had been asked to clean up its act by December 5. But the hospital did not bother to do so. And no follow up was done by the fire department. Another inspection was due in November 29, which did not take place. Just four days after the deadline expired, the carnage took place. This is not to dispute that AMRI flouted fire safety norms brazenly.
Investigations now reveal that the hospital deliberately delayed reporting to the fire station about the fire outbreak, precisely because it was concerned that it could be hauled up for not clearing its basement as promised.
Nothing can be more ironic than the fact that the hospital was awarded the number 1 ranking for Emergency Care in a national hospital survey by a leading national magazine.
The AMRI fire is the third such incident in West Bengal in present times. The state earlier witnessed ghastly fire at Stephen Court building of Park Street in 2010 and Nandaram market of Burrabazar in 2008. But, clearly no lessons have been learnt from past mistakes.
Just nine arrests have been made in the AMRI case so far. Seven directors of the hospital have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. In addition, two senior officials of the hospital were arrested in connection with the same case. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banejee has cancelled the license of the hospital and ordered a judicial probe into the fire tragedy.
But this little action won’t suffice for the mass murders. The case should be fast tracked and the perpetrators brought to justice at the earliest. A criminal negligence of this magnitude deserves exemplary punishment. The hospital management and the staff, those who forgot their oath to take care of the patients in the hour of crisis do not deserve any mercy. They should be charged with murder and be given the harshest possible sentence. In addition, heavy compensation should be slapped on the hospital management so that it is made to pay for its crime.
The civic authorities also should be made to share the punishment. They can’t wash their hands off. Well, the fire department had warned the hospital to clean up its basement once. But its duty doesn’t end there. Why didn’t it do any follow up? It has now been established that the hospital did not have the basic fire fighting system in place. Despite that how could the fire department issue a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to the hospital? Heads should roll now and criminal proceedings should be undertaken against the officials who abjectly failed to fulfil their responsibilities.
Only punishing the guilty won’t suffice. Let us think about preventing similar disasters before they take place next time. It is a fact that a good number of upscale hospitals across the nation are running on conditional and provisional clearances. The government should address the issue before another AMRI takes place.
Bengal hooch tragedy
In Sangrampur and its adjourning villages of Diamond Harbour subdivision in South 24 Parganas district on the outskirts of Kolkata, villagers reported sick after consuming illicit liquor. They were rushed to the Diamond Harbour sub divisional hospital. Quite a few died on their way to the hospital. Thanks to the utter lack of faculties in the hospital, not many lives could be saved. Meanwhile, the death toll has touched 173 amid fears of more casualties, as condition of several of the victims are said to be critical.
The last body of the tragedy is yet to be counted, but it has triggered a familiar political blame game with the Trinamool and CPM leaders trading charges at each other. Senior Trinamool leader and state Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee accused the CPM of masterminding the hooch catastrophe. The CPM was quick to hit back saying such allegations were meant to cover up the lapses and challenged the state government to prove the veracity of the allegations.
West Bengal CM has ordered a CID probe into the incident. Only 12 arrests have been made so far in the case. Those arrested are only small time vendors. The officer-in-charge of the excise department in Diamond Harbour was suspended on charges of dereliction of duty. But the kingpin of the hooch racket Khonra Badshah alias Noor Islam Fakir along with his key lieutenant Salim are still on the run. Salim was overseeing the manufacturing and distribution of Badshah’s multi-crore illicit liquor business in Magrahat-Gocharan-Sangrampur belt. Interestingly, Badshah who used to be a CPM man had switched his loyalty to Trinamool Congress because of the change in power of the state. Both CPM and Trinamool now disown the Badshah.
Country liquor is a flourishing business in rural Bengal and has assumed the status of an “organised” industry. The operation syndicate of illicit liquor works through mobile manufacturing units set up in remote villages. Popularly known as cholai in Bengali, the killer hooch are manufactured and distributed right under the nose of the police and the excise department. In most of the cases, the police and the excise officials are party to the whole operation. Moreover, the illegal operation enjoys tacit political patronage.
It is time for the West Bengal government to act fast. Mass murderer hooch king Khonra Badshah and his team should be nabbed at the earliest and be dealt in the harshest possible manner. It is time the state government cracks down on the illegal liquor syndication.