At around 4 pm on 10 August, hours before the oxygen supply at a hospital affiliated to Gorakhpur’s Baba Raghav Das Medical College ran out, I received a WhatsApp message. The message showed a photo of a letter, written by the operators of the hospital’s oxygen-supply plant, warning the authorities that the supply was running dangerously low. “If oxygen is not arranged immediately,” the operators wrote, “it would threaten the lives of the patients admitted in all the wards.” After verifying this information with a couple of sources at the hospital, I published this story on the local-news website I run, Gorakhpur Newsline, at around 5 pm. The letter had also reached some print publications, but by the time the report appeared in newspapers the next day, 23 children and 8 adults had lost their lives.
The incident drew wide attention from both local and national media. However, within a few days of the tragedy, the coverage had lost its bearings. The details—what had caused the event and who was responsible for it—were obscured by many media outlets, perhaps deliberately. Since I have been reporting on the incident, I have talked to dozens of people associated with it and accessed several documents related to it. The information I have gathered can help construct a detailed chronology of what preceded the tragedy. This account makes it clear that the deaths happened because of negligence at several levels, including those of the hospital authorities, government officials and politicians. It also proves that not only have sections of the media helped the government in shielding those responsible, they have even aided it in making a scapegoat of a man who, in all likelihood, was innocent.
In mid July, Pushpa Sales—the company that supplied oxygen to the hospital—wrote letters to hospital and government authorities, including the principal of the medical college, Rajeev Mishra, Gorakhpur’s district magistrate, Rajeev Rautela, the principal secretary for medical education, Anita Jain Bhatnagar, and the director general of medical education, KK Gupta. These letters point to the fact that, for at least six months, the hospital run by the Uttar Pradesh government had been irregular in its payments to Pushpa Sales, which itself obtained oxygen from INOX Air Products, a company based in Worli, Mumbai. In a letter dated 18 July, Dipankar Sharma, an executive at Pushpa Sales, wrote:
For six months, several written and verbal warnings regarding outstanding payments have been given … At present, due to pending dues of Rs 5744336, INOX Company has instructed that the supply of oxygen be halted. Until an amount of Rs 40 lakh is paid, INOX will not supply oxygen. As per the agreement, the payment should be made within 15 days of the bill being presented. But the payments are not being made as per the agreement. Why are they being made with delays of six months.
When the company received neither payment nor a response, on 30 July, it issued a legal notice to BRD Medical College, alleging that the institute had violated the terms of its agreement with Pushpa Sales and INOX India. The legal notice, too, did not receive an official response. On 1 August, Sharma wrote another letter, in which he noted that the company may soon be sending the last dispatch of oxygen. He wrote:
As of today, 1 August, the outstanding payment due is Rs 6365702.00. Despite aforesaid standing amount, keeping the welfare of the patients in mind, a supply of oxygen that will last 4-5 days has been ensured.
On 8 August, Sharma wrote the last letter on behalf of Pushpa Sales.
The outstanding dues as of today are Rs 6858596.00. It is to be noted that the stock of oxygen in the plant will only last 2-3 days. The company has earlier informed via the notice dated 30 July that, due to the non-payment of dues, INOX India has stopped the supply of oxygen. It is requested that an arrangement for an appropriate number of jumbo cylinders be made.
No government or hospital official responded to any of these letters.
At around 11 am, on the morning of 10 August, Krishan Kumar, Kamlesh Tiwari and Balwant Gupta, the oxygen-supply plant operators employed at the BRD Medical College, arrived to take a reading of the oxygen stock. The three were shocked to see the reading on the metre: 900 millimetres per water column. This had never happened before—it was mandatory to fill the liquid-oxygen tank as soon as the reading reached 4,500 millimetres per water column, Sharma told me. The operators immediately wrote a letter—by hand—to the head of the paediatric division. This is the letter I received in the WhatsApp message.
A majority of the patients admitted to the BRD Medical College go to the paediatric ward. The department has a total of 230 beds, of which 40 are for neonatal care. Nearly half the hospital’s oxygen supply is delivered to this ward, where newborns with grave conditions such as encephalitis are admitted.
The operators’ warning went unheeded. The principal of the medical college had gone on leave that same day. The head of the anaesthesiology department, who is effectively in charge of the oxygen supply, too, went on leave on 11 August.
On the evening of 10 August, by the time the clock struck 7.30, the pressure in the liquid oxygen supply had dropped significantly. There were 52 jumbo oxygen cylinders in reserve at the time. In the absence of a liquid-oxygen supply, the 100-bed encephalitis ward and the 54-bed epidemic ward would have needed at least 250 cylinders. An attempt was made to keep up the oxygen supply to the wards with the cylinders in reserve, and a few more cylinders were obtained over the next 24 hours, but these were not enough. As a result, the patients in these wards—newborns with encephalitis or infections contracted at birth, as well as the adult patients in the epidemic ward—slowly began to die. By night-time on 11 August, 34 children and 18 adults lost their lives.
Most of the deaths took place within six or seven hours of the discontinuation of the liquid-oxygen supply on 10 August. By 7 pm, the media had gathered at the college. Speaking to the media, District Magistrate Rajeev Rautela denied that the deaths had occurred due to a shortage in the oxygen supply. “At least 18, 20 people die here everyday,” Rautela said. “The number of deaths was normal. … But we will still investigate. A committee of four officers has been constituted. Strict action will be taken against those found responsible.”
On 12 August, the state’s health minister, Sidharth Nath Singh, and the minister for medical education, Ashutosh Tandon, visited the college. The two informed reporters that “many children die in August”—a statement that was widely condemned. Presenting the previous year’s statistics regarding child deaths, they said that the number of deaths had, in fact, gone down. Tandon announced that the principal of the college would be suspended. In the evening, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, held a press conference in Lucknow, in which he denied that the deaths occurred due to a shortage of oxygen. He announced that the state’s chief secretary would lead an investigation into the deaths. Adityanath said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was disturbed by the incident.
At this point, the media started reporting on the various reminders that had been sent by Pushpa Sales to the hospital. All the officials to whom the letters had been addressed washed their hands of any responsibility. The chief minister’s office said that it had written a letter to the principal of the college regarding the depleting supply on 1 August. The principal said that he wrote a letter to the director general of medical education on 4 August, and, the next day, an amount of Rs 2 crore was released. However, there was no clear explanation for why the payment had not been made until 11 August. The minister for medical education, Tandon, said that he did not receive any letter from the oxygen suppliers.
Apart from the principal of the college, other recipients of the notices from Pushpa Sales were not held accountable. While Anita Jain Bhatnagar has been transferred to another department, Rajeev Rautela and KK Gupta have simply formed committees to inquire into this matter.
At this point, the media also began reporting on one doctor’s efforts to save lives during the crisis. Kafeel Khan, who was in charge of the encephalitis ward, had made several last-ditch efforts to obtain oxygen cylinders and even used his own money to pay for them. Khan visited the headquarters of the central armed police force Sashastra Seema Bal, or SSB, and asked the jawans to come to the hospital to help him. An SSB vehicle was used to bring more oxygen cylinders. Against the grim backdrop of the multiple deaths, the doctor’s actions garnered some praise on social media.
On 13 August, Adityanath and the union health minister, JP Nadda, visited the BRD Medical College. The two requested the media to refrain from “fake reporting,” and wait for the chief secretary’s report. “Stern action will be taken against the culprits,” Adityanath said. “They will not be spared.”
It is at this point that the reportage on Gorakhpur took a bizarre turn. Khan was abruptly removed from his position as the nodal officer in-charge of the encephalitis ward, and accused of running a private practice and enjoying false praise from the media. The media also shifted its focus, from the shortage of oxygen causing deaths to the doctor. “Revelations” against him emerged on social media and on obscure websites, and traditional media started reporting these. The deaths, their families’ distress, the salaries of the BRD Medical college workers and the budget for the supply—all these causes were sidelined.
The media, in what looked like an orchestrated campaign, blamed Khan, along with the principal of the college, and turned them into villains. It was reported that the doctor had connections with the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. Dharamveer Singh, who worked for the Hindvi, a now-defunct newspaper brought out by Adityanath, published a post on Facebook, from the website www.hindi.indiasamvad.co.in. The post was titled: “How the System Failed: Sitting at Home, Principal’s Wife Was Calling Shots At the Medical College.” The same day, Singh wrote a sarcastic post, seemingly mocking the media: “It is rightly said that the media can bring down governments. With its power, it can transform any villain into a hero.” The post was accompanied by a news report that alleged that Khan had been charged with rape in the past, and a photo of a signboard with his name—seeming to claim that this was proof that he ran an illegal private practice.
Even as the number of published reports slandering Khan grew, news of a purportedly grief-stricken chief minister began doing the rounds. We were told in news reports that Adityanath’s eyes had welled up as soon as he entered the encephalitis ward at the college. Various others reported that the chief minister was visibly disturbed even during the press conference. The last question at his press conference was regarding doctors’ private practices. The chief minister’s face hardened. He responded that there would be a strict enquiry into them.
To those watching carefully, Adityanath’s response made it amply clear: a scapegoat for the scandal had been found. On 13 August, Kafeel Khan was all over Hindi news channels. Zee News, which had earlier accused the Adityanath government of being a “kaatil sarkar”—a murderous government—aired a bulletin titled “Kal Nayak, Khalnayak”—yesterday’s hero, today’s villain. The misinformation-filled bulletin, which even named Khan as the vice principal of the college, alleged that he had stolen oxygen cylinders from the hospital and that he was running a private practice. India TV’s long headline summed up the coverage—“The Biggest Betrayal: The Truth About Kafeel Khan; CM Choked Up; Whose Betrayal Brought Tears to the CM’s Eyes?” The story claimed that Khan had betrayed the chief minister. Khan, the bulletin alleged, took a commission from the oxygen suppliers and was the reason behind the delay in payment. As a local reporter who investigated the allegations against Khan, I know that the media coverage villainising him worked as a distraction from uncomfortable questions about the incident.
Aaj Tak ran reports under the headline “Action Begins With Yogi’s Visit.” The reports peddled the same false information. It said Khan was the vice principal of the college and the head of its paediatric department, and that he had now been removed from both positions. On 14 August, Newsworld reported that Khan “used his proximity with certain journalists to make himself out to be the hero,” and that he was hoarding oxygen cylinders in his private clinic.
Most Hindi channels ran similar reports on Khan, often with interviews from KK Gupta, who, as director general of medical education, had been one of the recipients of letters from Pushpa Sales. Gupta gave bites to several channels in which he said that Khan had admitted to having a stock of oxygen cylinders in his private practice. “When the stock had 52 cylinders, what good would Khan have done by bringing three cylinders?” Gupta jokingly told news correspondents. After all, it was the media who had made Khan out to be a hero, he told reporters.
Most details included in these reports were blatantly untrue. The 34-year-old doctor was neither the vice principal, nor the head of the paediatric department. He was not the head of the purchasing committee and it was not his responsibility to oversee the oxygen supply. This responsibility was that of Satish Kumar, a doctor in the anaesthesiology department, who is now under arrest. Khan had been serving as the in-charge of the encephalitis ward for about a year and was an assistant professor in the paediatric department. His job was limited to overseeing the treatment of the patients in the ward.
I can testify that there was truth to reports about Khan’s heroics on the day. I had arrived at the hospital on the morning of 11 August, when there was only one other media person—a photographer for Dainik Jagran—present on the premises. I witnessed Khan trying to treat patients and making last-ditch attempts to acquire oxygen cylinders. The account of Khan’s visit to the SSB headquarters, published in Dainik Jagran, has been confirmed by an SSB official.
On 2 September, Khan was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police on several charges, including criminal negligence, corruption and running a private practice. On 24 November, the police charged Khan and Mishra, the former principal of the college, with criminal conspiracy and attempt to murder. Khan was cleared of the charges of corruption and running a private practice. However, the very fact that he had been charged with running a private practice at all was significant—while it is certainly a grave accusation, it is common knowledge that most doctors in government medical colleges in the state run such practices. To make an issue out of one doctor’s private practice was selective. Even three months after the incident, no other doctor who runs a private practice has been investigated. It is quite clear that Khan was not picked out for any role he might have played in the event or for running a private practice. What is more likely is that the state’s government could not digest the fact that he was being hailed as a hero. Given that Adityanath has in the past expressed blatantly Islamophobic sentiments, many in the media have speculated that Khan’s religion may have played a role in his being targeted. At any rate, the media’s deflections on Khan’s supposed role in the incident obscured the various reasons for which it occurred. It failed to examine the larger context in which such events occur, including structural problems at district hospitals and medical colleges, the role of the government, low health budgets and poor equipment.
In the second half of August, following heavy rainfall, Gorakhpur and surrounding districts were covered by a terrible deluge as overflowing rivers had damaged dams in the area. The media, in turn, bombarded us with photos of Adityanath, perched on a boat, wearing a life jacket and participating in rescue operations. Everyone moved on.
(This article was translated from Hindi by Surabhi Kanga.)
This article first appeared in Caravan Magazine