In another twist to Gorakhpur children ‘massacre’ last week, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath on Saturday made an astonishing claim that deaths in August were annual affair.
Faced with widespread condemnation, Adityanath held his first press conference since becoming the chief minister in March this year. He also surprised everyone by agreeing to answer journalists’ questions even though he appeared angry over few questions posed by reporters.
He was joined by his health minister, Sidharth Nath Singh, and medical education minister, Asutosh Tandon. Both Yogi and Singh denied that the children had died due to stop in supply of liquid oxygen.
“It is a very emotional matter for me as I have been raising the issue of encephalitis since long,” he said, adding Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also expressed concern.
The government will take action on the report of the magisterial inquiry which will be received soon, Adityanath said, promising that no one will be allowed to go scot free and stern action will be taken against those responsible.
On reports that oxygen shortage had caused the deaths, he said if it were the case, it would have been a “heinous act”.
The chief minister said he had asked the officials during his August 9 meeting about the issues such as encephalitis, dengue, kala-azar, swine flu and chikunguniya besides what all they required.
But, the matter relating to oxygen supply was not brought to his notice, he said.
“In my personal interaction with officials, the principal of the BRD medical college and incharge of paediatric ward, I had asked if anything was required from the government but there was no discussion on oxygen,” Adityanath said.
Blaming the principal of the college for the delay in payment to the gas supplier, he said, “I have been told that the principal left soon after the (August 9) meeting without informing the authorities and has been found prima facie reponsible. He has been suspened.”
Referring to the letter of the oxygen vendor that supply will be stopped, the chief minsiter said funds were released from the government on August 5 itself and the principal should have made immediate payment.
“It is wrong to say that the supplier wrote to everyone. He wrote to the principal, who in turn wrote to DG health and funds were released on August 5…When money was sent, whose folly is it — the minister’s or the principal’s that payment was not made,” the chief minister asked.
His comment came in the backdrop of strident criticism of the minister by opposition parties which demanded his resignation.
Health minister Singh gave a detailed account of the deaths, stressing that none of them had been caused due to disruption of oxygen supply. Though the minister admitted that the pressure of oxygen supply was low for two hours on August 11, he said no death was reported during that peroid.
Tandon furnished details of the funds released for making payment to the supplier and blamed the principal for delay in clearing the dues.
“Can any company stop the supply of life saving oxygen under any circumstances?” Tandon asked.
BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, however, contradicted by saying that 30 infants died in a Gorakhpur hospital on Friday because oxygen supply was cut off over non-payment of dues.
He demanded stringent action against those responsible for the tragedy in Baba Raghav Das Medical College Hospital, where 30 children are believed to have died in 48 hours.
“The deaths which took place in a Gorakhpur hospital were very saddening. The person, who switched off the oxygen supply on the pretext of non-payment of dues, was responsible for the incident,” the MP from Unnao told reporters.
Denying media reports that he had termed the incident as a “massacre” (narsanhar), Sakshi Maharaj said, “I have never said so. I said the deaths were not natural and steps should be taken to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in the future.
The UP health minister also implied that such deaths were normal occurrences when he presented annual data on children’s deaths for last few years, when BJP was not in government.
Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad visited the hospital on Saturday and demanded the resignation of UP’s health minister.
He told reporters, “Heart-wrenching incident. Saddened by children’s death. This happened due to state government’s carelessness.”
60 children have died in just five days in Goakhpur, Adityanah’s home own. Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi had called these deaths as ‘massacre.’