A schoolboy from Belapur, Navi Mumbai, died of snakebite last Monday evening. This was in spite of being rushed to Mahatma Gandhi Mission Hospital immediately. Here the hospital kept him waiting until his slum-dweller parents could raise a security deposit of Rs 15,000.
"By the time his mother, a housemaid, raised the sum by pawning her 'mangalsutra' and gold ear-rings, 11-year-old Devanand was breathing his last," says Asha Shinde of the Republican Party of India, who accompanied the family to the hospital, a distance of five minutes from the boy's house.
On the other hand, Dr A K Sinha, medical superintendent of the 48-bed hospital, claims that it was not an issue of money, but that the boy was brought in too late to be saved, in spite of administering him anti-venom serum. According to Dr Sinha, the boy was brought in at about 7 pm by which time his eyelids were drooping, an indication that the venom had spread in his body.
Yet, Col (retd) J C Khanna of the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who has been dealing with snakes and snakebites since his army days, says, "You immediately notice a snakebite, whether poisonous or non-poisonous. The feeling is similar to a thorn piercing your body."
Devanand's father Parshuram Landge, a watchman, said his son was bitten in the makeshift bathroom outside their house at 6.30 pm on Monday. "He ran to me, crying out that a black snake had bitten his leg. We rushed him to M G M Hospital as the only municipal hospital is six km away in Vashi, and there are frequent traffic jams on the way.
"My son was tugging at the apron of the doctor, begging her to save him but she did nothing until it was too late," Landge alleges.
The Landges are also upset that they were not allowed to be with their only son during his last moments. The boy, a Std III student of People's Education Society, expired shortly after 8 pm.
According to Uddhav Jethithor, a neighbor who accompanied Devanand to hospital, the behavior of the hospital staff was shocking. "Instead of fighting to save the boy's life, they told us to go to an ESIS Hospital meant for workers", he states.
Dr Sinha still maintains that prompt care was given and the question of deposit money did not arise as "a deposit is taken only after admission". The medical superintendent said snakebites were not uncommon in the area and they had saved victims brought early on. "The villagers expect too much of us," he was quoted.
However, the residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar, on the slopes of a hillock housing an Ayappa temple in sector 8 of Belapur, are not ready to swallow the explanations. According to them, this is the third death due to snakebite in the 15-year-old slum. "Three years ago, Pandu Bansode, a teenager, ran to M G M Hospital after being bitten but was sent back to fetch money," recalled Rameshwar Borkar, who had just returned from Devanand's funeral.
Landge says he wants the authorities to withdraw the concessions given to the 21-year-old trust-run hospital attached to a medical college.
In 2005, while giving a judgment on a petition filed by Kolkata resident Parvat Kumar Mukherjee, the National Consumer Forum's Justice M B Shah had stated: "Can doctors insist and wait for money when death is knocking at the doors of a patient? Obviously, the answer is recovery of fees can wait but not death or the treatment to try and save the life of a patient." Mukherjee had filed the case against Ruby Hospital after his 20-year-old son Sumanto died.
In 1989, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Parmanand Katara versus Union of India case that "the preservation of human life is of paramount importance and hence an injured citizen brought for medical treatment should be instantaneously given treatment. Hence no doctor is expected to refuse to treat a patient in an emergency."