The ward boy and the great Indian media circus

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The case of the Bulandshahr ward boy could have raised larger questions about healthcare in small-town India, but all it became was the story of a man sacked for doing his duty, says Shone Satheesh Babu

Eye of the storm Mohammad Ayyub in the video grab
Eye of the storm Mohammad Ayyub in the video grab

MOHAMMAD AYYUB, 41, had been working at the Babu Banarsi Das Government Hospital, Bulandshahr, for the past 19 years as an operation theatre (OT) technician. On 11 July, Ayyub was reduced to a mere ward boy, a “sweeper who was playing surgeon”, as some television news channels hurriedly proclaimed. From a bash-fest, it soon became a smug-fest. While news channels have ended this flash-in-the-pan activism, they’ve left behind a man who has to now somehow take care of a family of 10.

“If I didn’t do the stitches, I would have been taken to task. When I did, I’m suspended. Was there a third thing I could have done?” asks Ayyub.

Bulandshahr came to the fore when some news channels aired footage of a ward boy suturing a 14-year-old accident victim. If news anchors are mirrors to society, the whole nation had erupted in righteous indignation. No one cared to ask about his background, or whether he’d received any training. The channels had already indicted him on the basis of a grainy 20-second footage. In a country short of 6 lakh doctors and over a million nurses, no one was curious to know if he had hammed up or done a good job.

According to Suraj, Ayyub’s colleague, 17 victims of a bus accident were brought to the hospital that day with injuries. Of the 23 doctors there, seven were attending to patients and the rest were on leave or not on duty. “This was an emergency situation so the emergency medical officer (EMO) sounded an alarm, which meant all the staff in the hospital were to assemble and be assigned duties,” says Suraj. “All Ayyub did was put in five stitches. It went fine, as far as I remember, till all of this (the TV noise) happened.”

But instead of providing an explanation for the lapse on part of the administration, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Bulandshahr, Dr HS Dhanu, seemed to wash his hands of the matter. When prodded about why Ayyub was made the whipping boy, or why more than half of the hospital’s specialist doctors had not reported on duty, he answered almost by rote. “Now the dust has settled. We’ve suspended the ward boy and transferred the chief medical supervisor (CMS),” he said. “The administration has issued warnings to every employee to only stick to his/her area of expertise. What more do you people want?”

According to hospital sources, some local channels had accompanied the accident victims to the hospital and an enthusiastic cameraman filmed Ayyub performing the stitches. The original intent of the footage may have been to expose the sorry state of healthcare in Uttar Pradesh. Some local reporters admitted that they never expected this to end in Ayyub’s suspension. “We just get paid our share for doing a story or providing footage,” says one, requesting anonymity.

How this played out reminds one of the film, Peepli [Live], where a story ricochets off different vested agencies and the truth ends up being the casualty. The way news anchors thundered about how we can let this “chalta hai” attitude go on reeked more of a boorish arrogance, than setting right an anomaly. When Ayyub was suspended, the anchors were back with their accomplished smiles. A conglomerate of mediapersons had won the war against one Class IV employee.

Eye of the storm The Babu Banarsi Das Government Hospital
Eye of the storm The Babu Banarsi Das Government Hospital
Photo: Vijay Pandey

While Ayyub’s colleagues went on a rampage, beating up journalists and destroying video cameras after news of the suspensions came out, Ayyub’s home descended into gloom. Just a kilometre away from the hospital in a squalid Muslim-dominated locality where pigs and dogs compete with cattle for foraging rights, members of the Ayyub family are resentful of the media. So much so, that he even refuses to pose for a picture. “I don’t want to have anything to do with the media,” he says.

With a wife, three daughters, two sons, ailing parents and an autistic brother to take care of, Ayyub was the only earning member of his family. If not for the media circus, Ayyub would have still been going to work. But more than the fear of the administration, it was the ignominy of being shown in such a way on national television that hurts him. For people here, it doesn’t matter if public discourse in the media is vapid. For them, the media either shames you or makes you famous.

Ayyub wanders around aimlessly, trying to find anonymity in solitude, among the fields. Even when he comes back, he looks confused. Even though he admits that what he did in the hospital was wrong, he is flummoxed about the one-sided punitive action. “Why am I being suspended and the CMS only given a transfer?” he asks.

He seems resigned to his fate though. “My employees union wants to take it up with the state Health Minister Ahmed Hasan, but I’ve really given up,” he says.

‘If I didn’t do the stitches, I would’ve been taken to task. When I did, I’m suspended. Did I have a choice?’ asks Ayyub

One of the tricky concerns this incident raises is that many such ward boys and technicians in the thousands of hospitals across the country may now be hesitant to be of assistance, out of fear of being caught violating a rule. Ayyub’s brother-in-law, Shawood Ahmed, avers, with some resentment: “If a ward boy is only meant to push stretchers, should he desist from offering water to a thirsty patient?”

How things tipped over for Ayyub is more a commentary on the breakdown of the cognisant machinery at our media workplaces. Even the headlines were misleading: “Sweeper turns Surgeon”, “Ward boy doubles up as doctor”. Ayyub was neither a sweeper nor was he playing doctor. In fact, no one even bothered to find out what happened to the patients who were treated by Ayyub, to bolster their claim that a wrong had indeed been committed. No one asked the boy, who Ayyub stitched up, if he is alright.

WHAT THE administration did was even worse. By suspending a man for doing his job, it has set a precedent that might prove to be dangerous. Mouthing platitudes, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had recently said that Khap Panchayats should take decisions for the welfare of society. Asked whether the Khap diktats were indeed good for society, he said: “That’s for the media to discuss and debate.” Discussing and debating is one thing, and deciding, quite another. Should policymakers then let decisions, too, be taken by the media?

Ayyub’s brother-in-law Ahmed feels former chief minister Mayawati would have done things differently. “She would have suspended people at the top, not kicked a poor man in his face,” he says.

The lapse in rural healthcare regarding the availability of doctors is appalling. People in small towns and villages spend one-and-a-half times more than their urban counterparts for the same illness. According to a report by IIT-Madras, spending on healthcare actually pushes 22 million people below the poverty line every year. This is despite India producing 30,000 MBBS graduates annually.

Unless a substantial chunk of these 30,000 graduates decides to go to far-flung areas for a posting every year, millions of rural Indians will have no option but to let amateurs and barefooted assistants treat their sons and daughters. And to answer Ayyub’s question that he had raised in the beginning, there was something he could have done. He could have refused to stitch up the injured boy. He’d have been suspended anyway.

Shone Satheesh Babu is an Assistant Copy Editor with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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