Tragedy and denial in Gorakhpur

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 14/08/2017
As the chief minister decried the TV coverage as fake news, the theatre of denial on the airwaves touched a new low in Indian politics.
NUPUR BASU lauds the TV channels which demanded accountability


In a chilling report from Ground Zero on Saturday evening ,Shreya Dhoundial of CNN 18 spoke to three parents whose children died in the now infamous BMD Medical College in Gorakhpur –the toll by then had mounted to 79 deaths in 72 hours.

All three parents said on camera that their children aged between four and 12 years had died due to lack of oxygen supply. Shreya then said in her piece to camera: “ The parents are clearly telling us  how their children died and yet the government and the authorities are saying not a single child has died due to lack of oxygen..! There has clearly been a criminal negligence and shameful cover up..there is a fog that has surrounded the story..statistics that the UP government has supplied us with, are clearly lies.The three stories we have just telecast clearly demonstrates that and yet the UP government in denial saying we are all giving fake news !!”

“A four-day-old baby who had not even been named yet was brought to the biggest hospital in the region by the parents so the child got better..instead they carried the coffin back home..the smallest coffin is the heaviest to carry!! a visibly moved Shreya said.

For the journalists covering this horrendous tragedy for the last 72 hours, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s statement in the press conference on Saturday that the media was supplying “fake news” incensed them. Infants died without oxygen supply and media is called “fake” for reporting it – the theatre of denial on the airwaves over the last 72 hours has touched a new low in Indian politics.

Testimonies of parents saying they kept telling the hospital authorities that their children were experiencing breathing difficulty as the oxygen had run out,  parents saying they were asked to bring their own vehicles and take the dead bodies of their children through the back door of the hospital so the waiting media in front did not see the dead children, one parent being made to run around giving blood ostensibly to save their child just as a distraction method while the child was already dead, parents of dead children being denied an autopsy and also not being given their death certificates----the list of instances of criminal negligence and attempt to cover up was long and there for everyone to see.

"The theatre of denial on the airwaves over the last 72 hours has touched a new low in Indian politics"


Mirror Now carried a coverage with the slug: “ Gorakhpur’s hospital of  horrors - Cries of anguish and despair –not just shortage of oxygen but also of transparency..” On Saturday evening they carried an interview with the suspended principal where he said that since February he had been asking the authorities to clear the dues to the gas suppliers and being told there is “no cash” – “I informed everyone that we need the money.”

The channel also interviewed an IMA (Indian Medical Association) spokesperson who said the suspension of the principal is not the solution . “They should suspend everyone in the chain…delay in payment in health care should be banned.”

On CNBC on Saturday Shireen Bhan anchoring  a programme titled : “What’s ailing India’s health care system” aired a very good interview with Vidya Krishnan, health correspondent, The Hindu : “Ï have not seen anything like this in the last 20 years – children die, bodies are handed over without autopsies and when the journalists report on it, the government calls it “fake media” – the Chief Minister asks the press at the press conference not to do fake reporting ! This is unprecedented.”

The health correspondent said that Lucknow had become a ‘fortress’ – “Ï have never seen a public health emergency being handled like this – no official will talk under this government . It is two days since the deaths have started there is not a single official to comfort the relatives…they are just going after the company that wanted to paid be for their supplies ! The journalists are not getting any information from the officials as they are scared to talk to the media lest they lose their jobs. Information sharing,which should be the right of the media has been plugged and there is no transparency whatsoever, Krishnan said. “We are not there to attack them on every story ..we need information..and we have a right to get it.”

Krishnan in her interview underlined the crucial point that it is the media which is solely the bridge between the public and the authorities in times of health emergencies the world over. In this case the information flow was not only being blocked but the media was being  deliberately discredited and called names for simply doing their job.

Former health secretary , Sujata Rao, pointed out that infectious diseases also falls under the 7th schedule concurrent list and the central government is also accountable for non delivery.

“Infectious diseases don’t look at boundaries..constant vigil is needed..and the media is one of the most important pillars for reporting these …if they are politically curbed ,then it is very dangerous development.the public have a right and need to know about all this..” she said.

On News X anchor Jhujhar Singh was saying that the entire Gorakhpur tragedy has been a “colossal PR (public relations) disaster” for the Uttar Pradesh government and central government simply because of the cover-up they have attempted.  He had a tough time containing BJP spokesperson Sanju Verma, who since Friday had been lambasting the media for its “biased and fake news” –completely in line, of course, with what her party leadership was putting out.  She wagged her finger exhibiting complete hubris at the SP spokeswoman saying :“You are down to 46…you are down to 46…don’t talk”..The anchor had to mute Verma’s mike several times as she just wouldn’t stop interrupting and screaming at the other panellists from SP, Congress and even doctors who were condemning the deaths of the infants. This TV conduct of screaming and not letting anyone else have a say, has been perfected by BJP spokespersons like Sambit Patra and Sanju Verma on Indian television.

"She wagged her finger exhibiting complete hubris at the SP spokeswoman saying :“You are down to 46…you are down to 46…don’t talk"


One had to listen to Verma’s shrieking decibel right thru the programme barring the times her mike was muted. When she went on to reel out statistics about what fabulous things her government had done on health care in UP, Jhujhar Singh said, “”I don’t care about your statistics – I SEE the reality” which Verma shrieked back: Ï don’t care that you don’t care”..she must have repeated this at least six times taking up valuable air time meant for finding justice for dead children.

On Friday evening , the brazenness with which Siddharth Nath Singh, UP Health Minister, went hopping from channel to channel ..shouting down anchors - blatantly denying that lack of oxygen was the cause for the deaths - had clearly established what the official line of the government on this terrible tragedy was going to be. Singh would not have dared take this line if he did not have a go ahead from the highest in the land.

On Times Now he was seen shouting at Navika Kumar saying you are “rattling on without listening to the facts I am giving you".When Kumar challenged him saying how could he pre-empt the committee looking at the cause of the deaths...he said it was time out and that he had to go to other channels and unmiked himself.

Next stop was CNN-18 where he is asked by anchor Marya Shakil "where does the buck stop" ? "I am not Minister for Medical College... Get your facts right." Singh barked back. Then came the familiar unplugging of his mike and saying " I have to go to another channel..."

Next stop Republic TV : here Singh was grinning away and trying to indulge in bonhomie with Goswami saying banal things like “ Ï am happy to be back on your channel talking to you after a long time !” His callousness was shocking. Did he not have a  sense of  the circumstances under which he was ‘back’on the channel??

When Goswami charged him of doing a ‘cover up’…Singh again repeated that there was another minister..and he was not in charge. Then he proceeded to give Goswami a condescending lecture about who is the D E A L E R..who is the S U P P L I E R. (stressing every letter as if the anchor was a moron!) . He heaped blame on the Principal of the college for not having disbursed the money to the oxygen suppliers.

When it got too hot for him in the studio with Goswami’s open barrel gun--normally permanently trained at the Congress party and AAP-- turned against the ruling BJP for a change, Singh said he had to go to another channel. Then came Goswami’s googly :”Don’t run away from answering our questions Siddharth Singh, we know you don't have any other appointment!! Singh was non- plussed for a second and bleated- “no no I have to go to another do you know I don’t have an appointment ?” Goswami ready with his doosra said : “We are investigative reporters and we know what you had for breakfast !" Singh lapsed into silence ..pulled out his mike and still visible on air was seen shaking his head in exasperation to those in front of him and reaching out for a glass of water !

Goswami then went onto say : “In India for our politicians –children are not vote banks - 63 lakh due – 63 children in BRD Hospital in Gorakhpur dead(that was the figure at that time on Friday evening).  Which politicains’s child would have been denied oxygen…there has been a criminal have made the supplier as did not pay him...main accused are the people who get the authorities and the Yogi team are responsible..this kind of negligence is perpetual...30 children die in 24 hours..”

Goswami also had a dig at another TV channel saying they were actually indulging in a “balancing act” by saying such things happened in previous regimes of Samajwadi Party or Bahujan Samaj Party or the Congress…he said that was totally uncalled for.

Meanwhile from ground zero a Times Now reporter was showing on camera that the gas cylinder meters were still zero !!

On Mirror Now..Faye D’Souza was at her very best. She had a panel of doctors most of whom said it was it is not a case of criminal negligence but culpable homicide. The authorities were aware that if oxygen supply was not maintained, the children would die , the panel of doctors stressed.

D’Souza put it out there : “There was a massacre in Gorakhpur...who was responsible ??”

Journalist Sharat Pradhan, said the UP government was trying to hush up the whole case. “If it had not been highlighted by the media, they would have covered up the deaths, he said. Pradhan also said that there is “rampant corruption” in the medical supplies sector and that “Nothing moves till everyone's hands are greased..corrupt practices are routine practices but no one is pointing this out”. He also pointed out that the health budget was reduced three times in recent months by the present government.

Meanwhile the BJP’s Sanju Verma was toeing the party line of complete denial. “Even now no clarity on whether they died due to lack of oxygen.. Siddharth Nath Singh has not agreed...I have been glued to the television and watching the statements of the Chief Minister and the Health Minister”.

The Mirror Now anchor was livid : “Cutting off oxygen supply to children is barbaric and we cannot base this discussion on your ability to watch TV ! The first line of treatment for encephalitis is oxygen supply..I can't believe we are even having this conversation !”

She then went onto clinically examine the sequence of events - how the machines had started

beeping at 7.30 pm, warning the authorities that the oxygen was running out and then at 11.30 pm to 2 am at night when it ran out completely.  The WHO directives on provision of oxygen were quoted – and it revealed how the present situation completely violated that. Testimonies from eyewitnesses were played out about how doctors from the hospital went frantically on their motorcyles to nearby hospitals trying to get some cylinders from there.

Faye D’Souza questioned whether those responsible for the deaths of the children should be in charge of the investigation ? The answer to the question, was embedded in the question itself. BJP’s Verma would not give up indulging in the numbers game. “It is 63 over five days” she said getting an immediate repartee from D’Souza: “63 is ok right, according to you?”

But Verma ,unfazed, then started referring to the number of deaths that had occurred during the Akhilesh Yadav regime and she started yelling at journalist Sharat Pradhan : “Your lie has been are on the are trying to put words into the minister’s mouth..let us not get ahead of ourselves.” She was almost beside herself screaming : Please do not outrage (sic) !

Pradhan had a dig at Verma : “You are new to TV debates.”

The Mirror Now anchor also hit back angrily at Verma : “Oh yes now let us turn this into a contest of deaths ! How dare you? How dare you?” She concluded by placing the blame squarely at the door of those in power. “The UP government is wholly responsible. And this is not going to be cleaned up by a speech on swatcha bharat.” She added, “we are not a political channel..we will ask questions of people in power”!

Another panelist Ashoke Pandit was saying : “ The kids do not belong to corporates, politicians and hence no one cares ...nothing can justify the massacre of these kids..”

On CNN-18 Shreya Dhoundial decried the statistics bombardment that the government was giving the media without answering the question on hand – why did the oxygen run out leading to the death of so many children ?  “How can the CM duck responsibility – he has been an MP here for 9 years..” she asked.

Meanwhile in the studio, anchor Marya  agreed that there had been a “massive operation cover-up”  while the Health Minister Siddharth Singh charged the channel with not having the “correct facts”. Denying that stoppage of oxygen was behind the deaths of children outright Singh asked callously “Why are 100 children still alive then? ..they must all die !” and actually laughed cynically after that.

Ranjana Kumari’s words on one of the channels had a piercing truth– “These children came to live..instead they died ..the whole coutry wants the resignation of your Chief Minister and Health Minister..This tear of mothers is going to cost you!!”

The Gorakhpur tragedy, sadly, is already beginning to fade from the channels as they go into special 70 year anniversary planned programming. Will the media remember that the only weapon these poor parents who lost their little children have are the media? They owe it to them to keep the issue alive till they get justice.


Nupur Basu is an independent journalist and film maker, executive producer most recently of ‘The Velvet Revolution.’





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