August 1 was the happiest day in Bhramdev Yadav’s life. His wife, Suman, had given birth to a boy and a girl on that day after eight years of marriage. The babies were born healthy but had a slight fever the next day. Yadav, who lives in Baghagara village, took them to Baba Raghav Das Medical College 10km away in Gorakhpur, and they were admitted there on August 3. They showed no improvement in the following five days. “Every day doctors would draw some blood from the babies and recommend a test. When I asked why their condition was not improving, they scolded me and asked me to mind my business,” said Yadav.
The babies’ condition deteriorated on August 8. Yadav was more worried, as he had seen children dying at the medical college. “I requested the doctor to discharge my babies so that I could take them elsewhere for treatment. But I was abused by the doctors on duty,” he said. His son died on August 9, and his daughter the next day.
A farmer, Yadav does not understand medical parlance, nor he knows about treatment regimen. But he knows why his children died. “Both were on oxygen in the ICU and I saw the supply suddenly dipping, doctors running here and there and whispering about how to restore the supply. But by that time it was too late,” he said. He buried the twins in an open area near the hospital. His village has a water-logging problem during the rains.
Yadav wants to go to court seeking an autopsy. “I do not mind digging up the bodies,” he said. “At least I will know what happened to my healthy children. The doctors do not tell you anything.”
Parents of all 70 children who died in a week at the medical college want to know what happened. Said Reena Tiwari, who lost her 14-day-old baby: “My son was being given oxygen. The supply was not adequate, but the doctors did not tell us. Around 1am, I was informed that my son’s condition was serious. When I asked what happened, the doctor on duty abused me and told me to get out.”
I met Reena at her paternal home 30km from the hospital. She said her son had a mild fever and a doctor referred him to the medical college. He was admitted on August 6 and was kept in the epidemic ward (used mostly to treat children suffering from Japanese Encephalitis, a long-time scourge in the region). When his condition started deteriorating, he was shifted to the ICU. Reena’s husband, Neeraj, said six children were kept in one bed, and the doctors were rude when questioned.
Though the government claims that no death happened because of disruption in the supply of oxygen, most parents say there was a shortage. Said Bahadur Nishad, a painter, who lost his four-year-old son, Deepak: “My son, who was being given oxygen, suddenly collapsed. I figured out that the doctors were talking about an interruption in the oxygen supply. But before anything could be done he died, and the doctors ran away,” he said. Nishad, who lives 15km from the city in Bechala Tola village, took the body of his son on a motorcycle because he could not afford an ambulance. “The vehicle chap demanded Rs 1,500 and I did not have that much money,” he said.
Oxygen supply has been an issue at the medical college. A payment of Rs 63.65 lakh to the supplier, Pushpa Sales Private Limited, had been pending for several weeks. The company had sent several reminders before it sent, on July 30, a legal notice to the principal of the medical college with copies to the director general as well as the principal secretary of medical education and Gorakhpur district magistrate. Nobody bothered.
“I had sent the notice on behalf of my client to the government as the pending amount was growing day by day,” said Vivek Gupta, the company’s lawyer. Manish Bhandari, the owner of Pushpa Sales, said the company did not stop the supply. “It is an absolutely wrong allegation that we disrupted the supply,” he said.
Intriguingly, the hospital delayed the payment to Pushpa Sales not because of shortage of funds. It had Rs 1.86 crore in its account and the government had given Rs 2 crore. “The principal of the college had written a letter on August 4, asking for money. The very next day the government credited Rs 2 crore into the account of BRD Medical College,” said Ashutosh Tandon, minister for technical and medical education.
It is said that the payment to Pushpa Sales was stopped because some officials were not getting commission. Health minister Siddharth Nath Singh said taking bribes and commission was common at the BRD Medical College. “We cannot deny that this could be the reason for the deaths of children and disruption in the supply of oxygen to the hospital,” he said.
A preliminary inquiry by Dr K.K. Gupta, director general of medical education, indicated that there were anomalies in the payment to Pushpa Sales and money was not released in time because kickbacks were not given.
He said the medical college had Rs 2 crore in its account on August 8. On August 10 and 11, about Rs 52 lakh was spent—Rs 43 lakh of this was paid to Pushpa Sales. It is not clear why the entire due was not paid.
The deaths came as a huge embarrassment for the Yogi Adityanath government, especially because the chief minister has represented the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituency for nearly two decades. The Gorakh Nath Math, which he heads, is in Gorakhpur. Adityanath had, in fact, visited the hospital on August 9. But the burden of responsibility was quickly passed on, and the government suspended the medical college principal Dr Rajiv Mishra and the head of the paediatric ward Dr Kafeel Khan.
Minister Tandon said Mishra was suspended for his “irresponsible act” of delaying payment to the oxygen supplier. Mishra, however, blamed it on Adityanath’s visit to the hospital. “The government released the money on August 5, which the medical college received on August 7. But, because of CM’s tour on August 9, the payment got delayed and it was made on August 11,” he said.
Khan was initially hailed as a hero because he paid from his pocket for oxygen cylinders in a desperate attempt to keep the supply on. But, it is said that as a member of the purchase committee of the hospital, he failed to ensure the oxygen supply, and Adityanath pulled him up for this during his visit. Soon social media was flooded with stories on Khan’s past. The police had registered a complaint of rape against him in 2015. But he was given a clean chit. Another allegation was that he ran a private practice at Medispring, a nursing home he owns in Gorakhpur.
Named after the Sarvodaya leader Baba Raghav Das, the BRD Medical College was founded in 1969 and it serves people from the eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh and the neighbouring districts in Bihar. It has long been a victim of the government’s apathy and neglect. Rough estimates say it immediately needs around Rs 30 crore to improve the conditions, and Rs 10 crore would be required a year for running it.
Death is a frequent visitor to the hospital. In the past five years, more than 3,000 children died here. It is the only hospital in eastern Uttar Pradesh with the facility to treat acute encephalitis syndrome (a term used to refer to a range of vector-borne diseases, including Japanese Encephalitis), and is flooded with patients during the season. In fact, a lot more children die even before they make it to the hospital. Primary health care centres in the region are few in number.
Japanese Encephalitis has been a challenge for eastern Uttar Pradesh for four decades. On an average, it claims a thousand children every year. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in January, more than half the children eligible to receive the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis in Gorakhpur did not receive its second dose. In May, Adityanath announced a campaign to eradicate the disease from 38 eastern UP districts. The target was to vaccinate 88 lakh children. “I have been fighting to eradicate Japanese Encephalitis for the past 21 years,” said the chief minister. “Before the incident came to light I visited the hospital twice and took stock of the situation, but it happened.”
The government has been trying hard to control the damage. It has formed a committee headed by chief secretary Rajeev Kumar to investigate the matter and submit a report on August 19. Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda has announced that a regional research centre would be opened in the region to study the cases of Japanese Encephalitis. The ministry has approved Rs 85 crore for this.
Such measures, however, are seen as too little, too late. “These are cosmetic measures,” said Bhramdev Yadav. “Our children will not come back. The loss is irreparable and the mistake unpardonable.”