New Delhi: Doctors in Kolkata have now been protesting for five days since two medical professionals were assaulted at Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College and Hospital allegedly after a 75-year-old succumbed to his treatment on the night of June 10. The deceased's kin blamed the medicos for negligence after which a mob, consisting of more than 200 people, attacked the junior doctors at NRS.
Dr Paribaha Mukherjee was grievously injured in the assault and sustained a serious skull injury. His condition is currently said to be stable.
The incident has led to intensive protests that first started in Bengal and then spread across the country. The inadequate and, to many medical professionals protesting or otherwise, unacceptable response of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee further angered the doctors who have refused to call off their strikes despite an ultimatum.
A closer look at the condition of doctors in Bengal reveals this was not a crisis in isolation. In fact, several discrepancies in the safety of doctors have cropped up in recent years in the state, including instances of frequent assaults.
The issue gained national attention when Jadavpur Police Station's officer-in-charge, Pulak Kumar Dutta, assaulted a medical professional at Calcutta Medical Research Institute (CMRI) in August last year.
On August 29, 2018, a postgraduate trainee doctor at the hospital lodged a complaint of physical assault against a police officer who had taken admission in the plastic surgery department for a wrist operation. According to the complaint, the cop assaulted the doctor who was attending to his case.
At the time, the Bengal unit of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) had written to Banerjee seeking her intervention and action against the accused police officer. Unit head Shantanu Sen had told PTI that despite several campaigns, state authorities had been unable to guarantee the safety of medical personnel. The state Association of Health Service Doctors had also organised protests and strikes and doctors had taken to the streets in the first week of September to protest against the attack and a lack of action.
Before the attack, the Kolkata Police in July 2018 had taken cognizance of the increasing number of cases of assault against doctors, initiating a social media and poster campaign to help improve doctor-patient relationships. The posters, promoted by the state police, said that disruptions were part of any job and an entire community should not be penalised for the mistakes of a few.
“Doctors are saviours, standing by us in sickness and health. Assaulting them is a punishable offence and can earn up to ten years in prison,” one of the posters had said.
বিচ্ছিন্ন বিচ্যুতি সব পেশাতেই ঘটে থাকে। সে পুলিশ হোক বা ডাক্তার, সাংবাদিকতা হোক বা শিক্ষকতা। তার জন্য সমষ্টিকে কাঠগড়ায় দাঁড় করানো অনুচিত। কলকাতার সরকারি-বেসরকারি হাসপাতালগুলিতে আমরা নিচের পোস্টারটি লাগানোর সিদ্ধান্ত নিয়েছি। pic.twitter.com/XQ7n9GgC2G— Kolkata Police (@KolkataPolice) June 28, 2018
The CMRI incident was not the only one. In February 2018, doctors in Chittaranjan National Medical College were attacked by the kin of a patient who had allegedly died while being shifted to the emergency ward.
In December 2018, the family of a deceased minor child had vandalised a paediatric hospital in Kolkata. The same month, another doctor on duty at the Royd Nursing Home in South Kolkata complained of being assaulted by the family of an 18-year-old patient who had been brought in for severe chest pain. The family was allegedly upset when the doctors recommended tests before beginning treatment. However, according to a report in ‘The Times of India’ on December 23, the nursing home filed no police complaint as no damage to property had taken place.
Family members of patients assaulting doctors is not the only instance of the state seemingly failing its medical professionals. In July 2018, students of Calcutta Medical College staged protests in order to get the chief minister to accept some of their demands. The protest was spurred by an administrative announcement saying that only first-year students would be allotted a room in a newly built hostel of 11 floors.
One of the demands included the removal of “an underqualified TMC part-time doctor (who had allegedly led a planned attack by outsiders on the college students) as a hostel superintendent of New Boys’ Hostel”, according to a report in ‘India Today’. The superintendent in question was Dr Partha Pratim Mondal, whose appointment flouted rules as he was not a qualified professor.
The students also accused Mondal of bringing in unidentified men to intimidate the protesters. According to their complaint, “goons” dressed as cops had assaulted the peacefully protesting students.
India has a skewed doctor-patient ratio, with one doctor for 1,850 patients. The ideal ratio, according to IMA Vice President RV Asokan, is 1:1000. While the latest incident at NRS Hospital compelled more than 200 doctors and medical professionals in Bengal to resign, it appears that the medical fraternity in the state has been discontent for some time with the state government’s insipid response in tackling the problem.
According to a report in India Today in April last year, 85 medical professionals had resigned in the first four months of 2018, while 350 more had said they want to quit. On March 23, 2018, seven medical and doctors' organisations, as well as allied professionals, demonstrated against political hooliganism and assault. Protesting outside the Health Secretariat in Kolkata, they sought an end to the politicisation of the state medical service. They also accused the state government of remaining “ambivalent” on the issue, despite more than a 100 incidents of assault on doctors, hospital staff and state-run health institutions and hospitals.
More than a year since the demonstration, not much has changed. Doctors still feel unsafe in the state, with mass resignations and strikes across several hospitals in Bengal. The absurdity of the situation is best reflected by the 2018 case of an orthopaedic surgeon Dr Niladri Biswas. After the attack on the junior CMRI doctor that year, Biswas opened a unisex beauty parlour in Barasat in September as a "substitute profession".
In a strange turn of events, a VVIP allegedly dialysis treatment for his dog at the government-run SSKM Hospital in Kolkata, according to a report in ‘Firstpost’ in July 2015. The dog was allegedly referred for treatment by TMC’s Nirmal Maji.
Perhaps this is even more fascinating — while pet dogs of influential leaders or their kin are treated by top doctors in Bengal’s government hospitals, the doctors themselves find all doors of influence closed when their rights are infringed upon.