The meeting between the striking junior doctors of Kolkata and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has finally happened in which the latter has announced some uninspiring steps like installing collapsible gates at the entrances of government-run hospitals to ensure the security of the medical practitioners. There is a proposal to appoint public relations officers who would work in three shifts to receive complaints from patients or their visiting kin. Further, not more than two visitors per patient would be allowed to enter a hospital together. Most importantly, in Kolkata, one nodal officer will pay heed to the grievances of doctors in every hospital while, in the rest of the State, it will be one nodal officer every district. While some of these measures could have been taken long ago, without the need for the doctors to hit the streets seeking protection from the State, the whole ‘offer’ that the chief minister has made misses some significant political, as well as administrative, points. People are asking why the deal that Banerjee has offered does not include legally proceeding against the mob of over 200 people that attacked junior doctors at the Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital on 10 June after the latter could not revive an aged patient. Given unabashedly to communal politics, Banerjee cannot muster the courage to act against the community, the identity of which is now known nationwide. A mob of that size clearly indicates they came from a ghetto that the police must be well aware of. If the cops have arrested a mere five of them, the doctors and other citizens can rest assured a weak case would be filed against them falling far short of Section 307 (attempt to murder) even as poor Dr Paribaha Mukherjee swings between life and death under intensive care, hit near-fatally on his skull.
Throughout the impasse, Banerjee betrayed the utmost insensitivity towards the aggrieved medical professionals by first attributing to them what a rival political party had said and then losing a modicum of courtesy while putting forth a precondition that she would meet the critically injured doctor only if and after his peers lift the strike. The chief minister stood unmoved through the episode where nothing less than an authoritative Indian Medical Association threw its weight behind the demonstrating doctors. She couldn’t care less if doctors across the country observed token strikes, which included keeping the non-essential medical services like the out-patients department closed for 24 hours. What mattered to her was her unfounded prestige, wherein she should not be seen, she presumed in all likelihood, to be yielding even an inch. To that end, she was ready to brazen it out by even taking recourse to falsehood last Saturday when she passed off her meeting with a pliable bunch of doctors as a meeting with the striking, junior doctors.
The promise of infrastructure development Banerjee has made today must be taken with a pinch of salt. She says more than 10 medical colleges will be built this year as though she wields a magic wand to pull off the feat in 365 days. The SSKM Hospital, from where the chief minister last week had declared that the doctors were “communal”, is a case in point where the existing facilities are crying for revival. Patients are dumped in a rather inhuman way in the said hospital, as well as in comparable government-run hospitals across Bengal. The doctors are hard-pressed as the ratio of those seeking treatment to the strength of the staff is unmanageable. In the meantime, a couple of years ago, Banerjee scored some brownie points by taking to task the CEOs of some private sector hospitals. All that it ensured was making companies like Apollo, Escort, Fortis, etc circumspect about investing more in the State where the Banerjee government would decide what kind of treatment fee was good enough to make the business viable. The moneyed class’s reluctance to bankroll the State affects not Bengal’s hollow business summits alone; they pervade the medical service sector. The yelling exercise in media presence also highlighted the absence of a legal regimen in Bengal that would facilitate, for example, portability of services. Of course, the responsibility of legislation rests partially with the Centre as well that has not been able to ensure for decades, despite the demand by patients countrywide, that they be treated by law as consumers.
Finally, Banerjee’s frequent recurrence of losing her composure indicates certain desperation borne out of an imminent decline of her short-lived political empire that rose not so long ago in 2011. Having inherited an anti-industry legacy of communists, which she had aggravated with her own obstructionism under the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee rule, she now had to speak a language that could bring to the State healthy work culture. The dichotomy in her behaviour as an opposition leader and then as the chief minister did not let one of the most enterprising communities of pre-independence era take off again just as Bhattacharjee had failed to reverse the all-protest-no-work culture Jyoti Basu had instilled in the local proletariat. The rise of the BJP and near-obliteration of the CPI(M) in the State would challenge her in the field of economics as well since the party ruling at the Centre has a track record of attracting investments better than many in the competition. There was a time Banerjee saw in every protestor a disguised Maoist or CPM cadre. Not much can be expected of a politician who also saw a sex worker in a victim of rape. Now she sees a BJP in striking doctors. It’s doubtful even friendly doctors can treat such psychosis. Her frustration is foretelling the fate the Mamata Banerjee rule in Bengal will soon meet.