Billori, Chhattisgarh: As she went into labour, Soni Baghel, who lives in one of Chhattisgarh’s poorest districts, wasn’t especially worried. She had delivered two babies earlier without any problem. By her side, in the state-run health hospital was Champa, her mitanin (local women entrusted by the government to ensure the welfare of women and children in the village; they are paid Rs 600 per healthy pregnancy).
When Soni was in the delivery room, Champa began to panic. Nurses and doctors, she says, ignored pleas to stop talking on their phones or to each other and attend to her patient.
Champa says she began massaging Soni’s head to ease the excruciating pain. And before she could intervene, a baby girl emerged from Soni’s womb. Without a pair of hands to receive her, the baby’s umbilical cord snapped; she slipped straight into a dustbin at the foot of the delivery table with a heart-stopping thud.
Champa says that the screams that followed brought a stream of doctors. They quickly lifted the baby out, and promised that nothing would happen to the child. She also says that after they cleaned and swathed the infant and brought her back for her first feed, the baby was bleeding profusely from her nose. She was taken away by the doctors and placed in the nursery, and helped to breathe through a tube. And 10 days later, the infant died.
The lack of doctors and nurses, the ensuing medical negligence, the unavailability of beds or sanitation facilities at government hospitals and medical colleges is a grimly familiar story.
But in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, the crisis is even more acute with doctors unwilling to work in a conflict zone.
Jagdalpur is not in the heart of where police and paramilitary forces are engaged in a bloody and violent war with Maoist insurgents.
Sulakshana Nandi who runs the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, a non-profit healthcare organization in Raipur, says Soni’s tragedy has two equally reprehensible aspects- while the charge is of medical negligence, the dismissiveness of the hospital when she was in the final phase of labour indicates a basic lack of respect towards poor tribal women in the region.
In Jagdalpur, Champa, furious with doctors who are trying to pass off their callousness as the mitanin’s carelessness, is trying to make the hospital accept its role. Based on her statement and the testimony to the police of Soni’s husband, a fact-finding team that met the parties involved including doctors has said the hospital is guilty of gross negligence.
According to the report, submitted to the Human Rights Law Network, when the baby was brought to be nursed minutes after being born, she had trouble breathing and was bleeding from her nose, after the delivery, the doctors allegedly told Soni and Champa to clean the table and wash the blood off the floor.
The report also says complaints of rampant corruption and inhumane treatment of expecting women in the gynecological ward have been regularly flagged by both patients and the mitanin who accompany the women. For example, tribal communities have a tradition of burying the umbilical cord in a place of their choosing, and knowing this, the report says, families are made to pay a bribe of Rs 500 for it.
On the basis of their report, the the Law Network, which is a collective of social activists and lawyers, wrote to the government urging action against the hospital and charging the concerned staff with culpable homicide.
That was in June. No action has been taken. Senior hospital officials we spoke to said the 10-day-old died from routine complications and infections including pneumonia, and denied any negligence on the hospital’s part. Champa says she has been harassed and threatened for pursuing the complaint.
Just days ago at Soni’s home in Billori, a cool breeze meant her entire family was sitting outside. Her two children were clamouring around her as she cleaned rice for the afternoon meal. Her mother-in-law, who speaks no Hindi, smiled at us widely and curiously. Champa, who had taken us to meet Soni, was chatting with her former patient’s husband.
It is these sort of voiceless and largely powerless tribals who travel for basic medical attention to hospitals like the one where Soni lost her baby. And without intervention, supervision and an investigation of their complaints, their health -sometimes, their lives -remains at risk.