Credited with arranging oxygen at Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College when there was a disruption in supplies at Ward 100, Dr Kafeel Khan, associate professor of paediatrics, had to spend eight months in jail before he was granted bail. He speaks to Afsal Rahman about the Gorakhpur tragedy and its aftermath in his life.
How and when did you get associated with BRD Medical College?
I joined BRD on contract in March 2016 as assistant professor and in August I became a permanent staff member. I teach students and care for child patients. In December 2016, the principal gave me additional responsibility of nodal officer of the National Rural Health Mission, but I was never nodal officer of Ward 100, head of pediatrics or “vice principal”, as the misinformation goes.
We hear around 2000 die every year in that ward—why?
Not just encephalitis but poor infrastructure takes its toll. BRD is the only medical college for half of Purvanchal, Bihar and Nepal. The Primary and Community Health Centers are like white elephants in this region so BRD takes their load. Children come here in very advanced stages of illness. Our mortality rate is, in fact, like any other premier medical institute but our sheer number of patients is alarming. We used to have 16 warmers for 80 babies, whereas practically and ethically you should not put more than one baby in a warmer as they stop being effective and chances of cross-infection grow. That’s why around 1600 babies died in 2016 and 2017. Our roughly 200 beds accommodate at least 300 children at a time. Plus, I was just the fifth doctor in the entire department.
Is this a reflection of the state of the health sector of UP?
Yes, at least in this region it’s a very sorry state. They say it’s only six months since Yogi became the CM but he was MP here for 25 years.
Can you recollect the night of August 10, 2016?
On August 10 night, I got a message that liquid oxygen supply is finishing. The next 48 hours were horrible as I tried to arrange cylinders along with junior doctors, nurses, pharmacists, ward boys. It was equally horrible for the families who were losing their kids. Parents were agitated and angry. We consoled them, took empty cylinders in a truck, refilled them and returned. This went on for 48 hours. The liquid oxygen tank came only on 12th night, 48 hours later.
But the government says these deaths were not due to lack of liquid oxygen...
The government initially accepted this, but when the news broke they went into denial. The district magistrate’s first interview on August 11 admits this but by night, he denied the role of oxygen. Then the health minister said, ‘August mein mout hoti hain’ ('Deaths happen in August') and the denial continued.
READ ALSO: What’s Best For The Kid?
The hospital said they had back up supplies...
Yes, there were 52 cylinders but oxygen pressure lowed at 7:30 PM on August 10 and by 11:30 PM they were exhausted.
Why was chief minister Yogi Adityanath in BRD on August 9th, but not informed?
I was present at that meeting. He was not informed because, I think, that very day BRD got money from the government for the oxygen. This money was transferred to Pushpa Sales on August 10, but it reached his account only the next day.
The oxygen supplier once said he didn’t cut supplies but only threatened to do so. Can you clarify?
He supplied oxygen on August 4. Central pipeline operators are responsible for informing authorities once the oxygen pressure goes below 4,000 (units). But they informed only at 900 units. There was miscommunication at that level.
Were you also part of the purchase committee?
No, I was not involved in any procedure related to oxygen supplies.
How did you get involved in this issue?
The media highlighted the deficiency of the system and my collecting oxygen, while the government got into denial mode. Hate mongers and fact distorters started a smear campaign against me on social media. I was hero one day, a villain the next. Yogi asked me if I thought I would become a hero—‘mein tujhey dekh loonga,” he said.
They say you called the media and portrayed yourself as savior.
It’s media that made me a hero and it’s the media that made me a villain. The papers say on August 10 that liquid oxygen would finish that evening. I was on leave that day. When I reached the spot, the media was already there. I didn’t inform them.
There were allegations that you were doing private practice at a hospital owned by your wife.
I was doing private practice only before I was given permanent appointment at BRD. This charge and the accusations of corruption, forgery and many others were dropped against me. They charged me with culpable homicide, but the High Court has said there is no evidence against me.
And how was jail?
It was horrible; my whole family suffered. Their business and professions collapsed. Cops would come to my home at 11 PM and stay until 3 AM. Around 50 policemen would come at a time. My younger brother and mother left for Hajj. My wife and younger brother’s wife were the only ones around. My older brother Adeel had to travel between Allahabad and Lucknow. My brother Jameel was shot at in June and seriously injured. He took three bullets and is fighting for his life. Gorakhpur jail can accommodate 800 prisoners but has around 2,000. Despite being a gazetted officer I was not given a Class B jail. They treated me badly and put me with hardcore criminals. I lost 8 to 10 kilos, but worse was the mental trauma. My daughter was eleven months old when I was arrested and by the time I came out I had missed milestones like when she started walking, speaking and running. She calls me papa, but doesn’t know what papa means. My family had started feeling I would never return, be killed. I thought so too.
What are your plans now?
I have just got bail, but the High Court has written that the UP government could produce no evidence against me. If they reappoint me at BRD, I will work. I plan to start a 500-bed encephalitis treatment centre, a corporate hospital in which treatment would be totally free for the poor. In jail, I worried how nobody was coming to see me many people, including parents who had lost their kids were there to receive me when I came out. I was really surprised. People are calling from all over the world.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print