AMRI Tragedy: Playing with Fire

Photo: the easternpost

Two incidents late last year shook the conscience of many people in West Bengal. On December 9th, 2011, major fire claimed 93 lives in the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) Hospital, Kolkata. Most of them were patients admitted to the hospital for treatment. In another incident, 173 people died after consuming spurious hooch (locally manufactured liquor) in the state’s South 24-Parganas district. Many who died were mainly daily wage labourers who bought the cheap liquor that was easily available in that locality. In this article, we examine the real causes that led to the tragic incident at AMRI, Kolkata

AMRI has several branches across Kolkata and one of these hospital is located at Dharkula, South Kolkata. On 9th December, 2011 at about 02.45 AM fire initially broke out at the basement of this hospital. It spread to other floors because of the inflammable materials in the basement which was not protected according to the safety norms. Though the hospital had been warned by the government officials about the violation but the hospital regularly violated the safety procedures as it hardly expected any action from the government. There was also fears about the safety of the radioactive material which were present inside the Biomedical department (also located at the basement).

As fire spread to others floors, employees thought they could extinguish the flame themselves. There were reports that they even stopped local people from rescuing the patients by locking the entry gates. As the fire went out of control, most of staffs fearing for their lives left the hospital without evacuating the patients first. Most of the patients left to themselves died because of burn injuries and suffocation due to smoke.

Many more lives would have been lost had it not been for the bravery of two nurses from Kerala (both losing their life in the fire) and another local guy. Since no emergency rescue plan was in place, it costs the life of 93 people and leaving several others seriously injured.

Ugly face of Corporate Capitalism

Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) hospital is the joint venture of FMCG gaint Emami & Real estate group Shrachi. The hospital has been operating since 1991. It was developed under the patronage of the previous Left Front government in the name of providing affordable healthcare. Government gave land at throw away price to the group with a lease period of 30 years. The annual lease rent was merely Rs 9.94 lakh which is 16 times less than the current market lease rate. But in return, AMRI (subsidized at public expense) dubbed as “super specialty hospital” was hardly accessible to even the poor slum-dwellers living around the hospital.

Six directors of the hospital surrendered before the court. Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal (WB) after defeating the CPI(M), cancelled the license of only the concerned hospital, without bothering about safety measures in other private hospitals. Court denied bail to the six directors of AMRI and sent them all back to jail. Industry association FICCI asked Mamata to show leniency and even tried to blackmail her government by saying that it would send a wrong signal to the investors looking to invest in the state. BJP (a non entity in WB) shamelessly joined the chorus to release the directors. But Mamata has not bowed to such pressures for now, which could otherwise have enraged popular feelings against her government.

It is not surprising that the CPI(M) has chosen to remain in the sidelines about the whole incident. During the previous rule of the Left front government, the Marwari businessmen, who control many industries and services in West Bengal (such as the AMRI hospital chain) and the CPI(M) had forged a strong relationship.

Nothing Learnt from Past Incidents

In March 2010, 43 people died in a fire incident at Stephen Court in Kolkata. Even after formation of a high level committee on building safety issues by Kolkata Municipal Corporation, they couldn’t prevent the latest tragedy at AMRI. Kolkata is not alone in this. Most of the newly constructed buildings, hospitals and others have regularly violated fire safety laws as these measures would eat into the profits of its owners. Recently Heritage building in Chennai lost its beauty and went beyond repair because of recent fire accident.

When fire accident happened in T Nagar, which is the Shopping centre in Chennai, fire tenders could not reach the spot because of cables being wired across the street and the street was too narrow for the fire tenders to enter. It is just another instance of how poorly streets and building have been planned in India, bereft of any safety measures, putting the lives of ordinary people in great danger.

Prevention is not a Motto under Capitalism!

It is not as if it is impossible to prevent death during fire accidents and can easily be handled with proper management and training of personnel. For instance, no one died in the five major fire accidents in London hospitals between January 2008 to February 2009. Due to non-enforcement of strict rules for safety measures (which is full of loop holes) in India because of pressure from business who are only interested in safeguarding their profits and corruption in the government, fire accidents have become commonplace across India. Lack of government funding in disaster management system, infrastructure and adequately trained personnel in handling such incidents, have only compounded to the woes in handling such disasters.

This incident has also brought to light the criminal nature of the private/ corporate hospitals in India, who not only fleece their patients by charging exorbitant fees and preventing any efforts at providing universal access to healthcare for all in India, but routinely violate all laws of the land (in connivance with the government and the bureaucracy) to ensure their profit margins.

Bhopal tragedy is a casebook on what negligence by state, centre & Company management could wreak upon the lives of innocent people. Even today people of Bhopal are fighting for compensation. The capitalist class do not want rules that affect their profit margins. They are even shamelessly joining the chorus in support for the release of the board directors (AMRI) using the justification that they were not involved in the day to day operations. But that is precisely the point. Their non-involvement in day to day running of the hospital did not prevent them from reaping huge profits from it, by exploiting patients and neglecting all rules.