Thursday, December 1, 2022

Meghalaya High Court encourages individuals to raise queries on administration for proper functioning

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The Meghalaya High Court recently observed that public spirited individuals should be vigilant and they should be encouraged to raise queries for the administration to be kept on its toes, particularly when it comes to health-care and measures to alleviate the lot of the underprivileged in the State.

The Division Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice W. Diengdoh disposed of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by one Agnes Kharshiing in which focus was the perceived spurt in neo-natal deaths and death of women at the time of delivery during the lockdown period. The petition also speaks of the general lack of medical facilities for delivery and neo-natal care.

The primary prayer in the petition is for the constitution of a high-level committee of medical experts from outside the State to investigate the deaths in respect of women and children in the State from April, 2020 for the officials responsible to be identified.

While considering the PIL , the Court held that there is no doubt that the health-care facilities in the State require considerable improvement and adequate attention in such regard may not have been given by the administration. It is also evident from the figures relied upon by the State that infant mortality in the State was at a high level and facilities for neo-natal care were limited. Following the initial lockdown being declared in March, 2020 during the first surge of the pandemic and even during the second surge of the pandemic in 2021, facilities for delivery and neo-natal care suffered.

The State has furnished figures from which it appears that death in women in course of delivery went up from 59 in April to July, 2019 to 63 in April to July, 2020 and as for the death of infants, the figure for the relevant period in 2019 was 265 and it shot up to 390 during the corresponding period of 2020. Neo-natal deaths numbered 425 between April and July, 2019 and the figure rose to 486 between April and July, 2020.

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Several other persons suffering from chronic ailments, including diseases pertaining to the heart, kidney and even cancer, suffered during the lockdown periods, in particular, as the focus of the State was on dealing with the pandemic. Indeed, unless there was an emergency, the instances of surgery were much less during the lockdown period. Such was the general situation not only in the State but across the country.

Further the Bench held that there is no doubt that both the State and the country were unprepared for the pandemic and resources meant for other areas of treatment were diverted to deal with the pandemic. With the pandemic now waning, things have come back to the previous normal but the petitioner quite rightly submits that the previous normal is not an acceptable position and a lot more is required of the State.

“Ideally, both the State and the nation should have been geared to meet an emergency like the pandemic. Medical facilities across the country were found to be woefully short, including available beds and even supply of oxygen. In such a scenario, no witch-hunting is called for on the basis of what the petitioner brings to Court by way of the present public interest litigation.”

The State has committed to expending eight per cent of its budgetary allocation for health-care. It is also necessary to set up facilities in the rural areas and super specialty hospitals dealing with particular kinds of ailments. The State lacks a cancer hospital and a rudimentary wing has been set up at the Civil Hospital in Shillong with the sophisticated equipment still not available there. There is no doubt that such matters will engage the attention of the policy-makers in the State so as to provide better health-care to the citizens here, observed the Court.

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On the basis of the material available, the Court opined to engage in an exercise to get outside experts into the State without any basis therefore or guarantee as to whether the cost involved for such purpose would ultimately be justified. Such expenses may be better incurred to augment the existing health-care facilities and to provide better care in the rural and far-flung areas. The Bench further observed that the State must ensure that proper roads are in place so that access to health-care centres or facilities may be possible, particularly in rural areas in the western part of the State.

The Court went on to observe that it is unfortunate that even after 75 years of independence, infant and child mortality rates both in the State and nationally are well above the desired level. It is also unfortunate that the rudimentary care that a woman needs at the time of delivery may not always be available in the State or accessible to many. The Bench hoped that these aspects would be taken care of by the administration.

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“The Court records its gratitude to the petitioner for bringing a matter of eminent public interest to the notice of the Court. Such public spirited individuals should be vigilant and they should be encouraged to raise queries for the administration to be kept on its toes, particularly when it comes to health-care and measures to alleviate the lot of the underprivileged in the State. It will be open to the petitioner and other like persons to institute fresh proceedings after the lapse of a reasonable time, if the health-care facilities in the State do not improve”

-order reads.

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