Updated: November 18, 2021 7:30:20 am
On November 6, Dr Vishakha Shinde, a senior resident doctor posted at the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Ahmednagar District Hospital for months on Covid duty, reported to work as usual. Her day was cut short by a fire in the ICU, leaving 11 Covid patients dead. Within 72 hours, Shinde, 27, found herself in the district sub-jail along with nurses Sapna Pathare, Asma Shaikh and Channa Anant.
Eleven days later, the four continue to be in jail, even as officials are yet to act on the preliminary investigations that showed the hospital did not have a fire No Objection Certificate, nor were its water sprinklers functional. While the fire is suspected to have started due to a short-circuit, police are still awaiting the electrical inspection report. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has written to the state government alleging an attempt to “shift the blame” to medical staffers, while the state doctors’ association has sought “a fair probe”.
Dr Shinde’s father Rajendra Popat Shinde, a retired school-teacher, asks if his daughter, who is in the final year of her MD, is being made a scapegoat to save government officials for their “negligence”. “My daughter is not a firefighter… she is just a medical student. Now, she is being blamed for the deaths while the hospital didn’t even have a fire NOC,” says Rajendra.
Apart from arresting the doctor and the three nurses on duty at the time of the fire, the state government has suspended Ahmednagar district civil surgeon Dr Sunil Pokharna and medical officer Dr Suresh Dhakne.
Dr Shinde and the others were arrested on November 9 under IPC Sections 304 (culpable homicide) and 304A (causing death by negligence). They were produced in the district court and remanded to judicial custody until November 24. The district court will hear their bail applications Thursday.
There were 17 patients in the ICU that day. Of the 11 deaths, three were due to fire injuries, while eight were from suffocation. One patient died on Wednesday, taking the toll to 12.
Rajendra says that inside the jail, his daughter “has fallen apart”. “She worries about the blemish on her career. She has worked so hard to come this far. Due to her Covid duty, we couldn’t even meet her for months,” he says.
Police say the CCTV footage shows the four arrested were not present in the ICU when the fire started. Investigating officer Sandip Mitke points out that the hospital muster book has Dr Shinde’s signature for November 6.
“There was a relative who went inside the burning unit twice to save the patients. Had these staffers been present at the unit, they could have saved more lives,” said a police officer involved in the investigation.
Dr Sachin Vahadane, secretary, Indian Medical Association (IMA), Ahmednagar, however, says: “Dr Shinde was taking a round of the ward when the fire started. There were several other hospital employees who could have intervened. Absence from a spot doesn’t qualify as culpable homicide.”
On the administrative side, there is clear proof of neglect. The hospital had no sprinklers or fire alarms despite an audit by the Ahmednagar civic fire brigade highlighting this in January 2021. After the fire, Health Minister Rajesh Tope accused the PWD of delaying technical sanctions that were needed to initiate necessary safety measures at the hospital.
“If fire sprinklers had been installed, they could have helped in dousing the fire or reducing its intensity before the fire brigade landed. If a proper system was in place, casualties would have still occurred, but the number would have been much less,” Ahmednagar fire chief Shankar Misal had told The Indian Express earlier.
Ahmednagar District Collector Rajendra Bhosale declined to comment on the matter.
Shinde’s advocate Makasare Yohan said she was a fee-paying student, who had given Rs1.50 lakh for her post-graduate studies, and hence far from qualified as a government medical officer who should be held liable for a fire mishap.
“This is the first time that a medical student has been arrested under Section 304 for a fire mishap in a hospital. Rather than investigating government officials from the electrical department and PWD, they have turned it into a blame game,” said Dr Vahadane.
The Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors and Medical Student Welfare Association have also written to the state government seeking a fair trial. Dr Yashraj Katkar, central secretary of the Medical Student Welfare Association, said: “The flames spread so much that the fire brigade had to call two vehicles to douse them. So, how can a medical student with no training in firefighting be expected to save lives in an ICU surrounded by fire and filled with smoke? Where were the guards?”
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