Enact Strict Law To Ensure Personal Safety Of Doctors
Let me begin with a candid confession: I have not seen God with my own eyes whom I worship but yes I have always seen the best creation of God – “Doctors” right from my childhood days because whenever I had any problem of any kind pertaining to my physical well being, my parents always took me to doctor who always took utmost care to ensure that I don’t suffer from any problem any more and prescribed the best medical treatment for my problem! The mere soothing words of doctors prove to be the biggest medicine for patients in many cases. Yet it is most unfortunate that doctors themselves in our country are not safe and are abused, attacked and assaulted by some disgruntled people on one pretext or the other! It is an unpalatable truth and sad commentary on the state of affairs in our country that three out of every four doctors admit to face some form of verbal or physical abuse!
To put things in perspective, we all saw recently how the seven-day old strike by junior doctors and ‘cease-work’ in West Bengal medical colleges and hospitals was spreading all over India but ultimately when the Chief Minister of West Bengal – Mamata Banerjee agreed to accept their demand, the doctors promptly called off their strike! The strike was triggered by an attack on a doctor – Dr Paribaha Mukhopadhyay with bricks who is now being treated for a skull fracture by the family of patient who died at the NRS Medical College and Hospital at Kolkata! We all saw how doctors across the country joined the protests and observed a shutdown in response to a call by the Indian Medical Association.
As it turned out, just recently we saw that when the Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan who is himself also a doctor wrote to Chief Ministers of States asking them to frame laws for protection of medical professionals, he also attached to it a draft law framed by the Indian Medical Association (IMA). The draft titled Protection of Medical Service Persons and Medical Service Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage of Loss of Property) Act, 2017 proposes a ten-year jail term and a Rs 5-lakh fine for violence against doctors. The IMA is currently seeking a seven-year jail term for the offence.
Needless to say, there is no reason why the IMA proposal should not be accepted in its entirety. Violence against doctors in any form cannot be justified under any circumstances! Those who still dare to indulge in it must be made to pay heavily for it and under no circumstances should be allowed to escape unpunished! Only then will the fear of punishment deter potential offenders from letting loose violence of the worst kind against doctors.
It may be recalled here that the draft law was submitted by the IMA to the Health Ministry in 2017. It had demanded a central law for the protection of doctors and has raised it again in the wake of the NRS Medical College and Hospital incident in Kolkata. Very rightly so!
To be sure, the provisions of the draft law are stringent: it categorizes both mental and physical abuse as violence against doctors and covers not just hospitals and a radius of 50 metres around them, but also home visits. Such violence, it says, will constitute an offence that is cognizable, non-bailable, non-compoundable and fit for trial by a court of the Judicial Magistrate of First Class. Apart from penal provisions, it also provides that the offender in case of any property damage will have to pay twice the price of the damaged property as compensation. Very rightly so!
What’s more, the draft law lays down specifically that, “any act of violence, mental or physical abuse against medical service personnel during or incident to, including, but not limited to going to or coming from medical service institution, discharge of his lawful duties pertinent to medical and healthcare delivery within 50 metres of such medical institutions, (safe zone) or in a mobile clinic or in an ambulance or during home visits shall be prohibited”.
It cannot be lost on us that Dr KK Aggarwal who was President of IMA when the draft Act was submitted told the media that, “At that time, when we looked at the legal protection available to doctors, we found that 19 states have some provisions, many have promulgated ordinances. When we met the Inter-Ministerial Committee, the Additional Secretary told us that health is a state subject, so only if some states write to the Centre for such an Act, can a central Act be made. Their position was that there are enough provisions in the IPC to tackle this situation, but our position was that in public interest, doctors need a special provision. If one doctor is assaulted, several hundred patients suffer as he goes off duty.”
As things stood, in his letter to Chief Ministers, Dr Harsh Vardhan cited a July 2017 letter sent by the Union Health Ministry to all Chief Secretaries which contains the decision taken by the Inter-Ministerial Committee constituted the Ministry to review the issues raised by the IMA. The Committee, in its report, recommended that the Health Ministry suggest to all state governments, which do not have a specific legislation to protect doctors and health professionals, to strictly enforce the provisions of special legislation wherever they exist or enforce the IPC/CrPC provisions with vigour.
To say the least, Dr Harsh Vardhan who is Union Health Minister also wrote that, “The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has raised this concern many times. Since ‘Police’ and ‘Public Order’ are State subjects, Government of India, on many occasions has drawn attention of State Governments for an urgent need a robust criminal justice system with emphasis on prevention and control of crime.”
Be it noted, at least 19 states which includes West Bengal which is the real epicenter of the protests have already passed what is called the Protection of Medicare Service Persons and Medicare Service Institutions (Prevention of Violence And Damage To Property) Act, also known as the Medical Protection Act (MPA). The Act which is covering doctors affiliated to institutions as well as independent practitioners, outlaws attacks against physicians and damage to their property. The offenders under this Act can get a jail term of up to three years and a fine of Rs 50,000.
Well, it must be said that as stringent as it sounds, the Act, however, utterly fails to really protect doctors because it features neither in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) nor in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). It goes without saying that this makes it difficult for victim doctors to approach the police for help or the latter to file a complaint against suspects. The palpable reason underlying it is explained by Dr Neeraj Nagpal who is the Convener and Managing Trustee of the Medicos Legal Action Group in Chandigarh and who aptly points out that, “Without any provision in the IPC, filing a case can sometimes mean taking a copy of the Act to the police because she or he may not even know about it.” He also further added that, “Police may not even be sure under which section to file such a case.”
It needs no Albert Einstein to conclude that all this can be addressed if the Centre displays political will power and brings in suitable legislation in this regard to ensure personal safety of doctors at all cost. It is known all too well that doctors have long been demanding that a central law be put in place instead of a state-wise MPAs as well as adequate security at hospital premises. Dr Rajan Sharma of the Indian Medical Association was at pains to point out that, “I have lost count of the number of requests we have made for a central law.”
Going forward, Dr Rajan also lamented that, “Protests only take place after attacks happen and it has been impossible for us to keep track of the rising number of such cases.” Why can’t Centre accede to their legitimate and well deserved requests which is their biggest grievance also? Centre must accede now!
It cannot be dismissed lightly that in 2017, the IMA released a study that found 75 percent of doctors faced some form of violence while on duty. Dr HL Nag who is a sports doctor at All India Institute of Medical Sciences
rued that, “Violence is not just physical. We also face verbal abuse almost every day. I have even been forced to call the police several times.” It is very rightly feared by doctors that intermittent attacks on physicians
may stop people from taking up the profession. Dr HL Nag also further rightly lamented that, “The number of doctors vis-à-vis the number of patients is already less in hospitals across the country. We skip food and work without taking breaks to cater to patients. With news about attacks against doctors on the rise, more and more people are leaving the profession. Resident doctors and those practicing in rural areas are most at risk of being violently attacked.”
To say the least, barring the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 – making prenatal sex determination illegal – the Central Government generally does not intervene in any health laws. Here also, Centre is dishing out the same reason and Many nod their head in approval with Centre’s stand.
Having said this, it is high time and Centre must also now consider the serious gravity of the situation concerning increasing attacks on doctors. Dr Nagpal very rightly hit the nail on the head by pointing out that, “Why is the PCPNDT Act a central one? It is because the authorities saw a unique problem that could be better monitored and remedied by a central law. The situation is same when it comes to violence against doctors.”
On a concluding note, it must be said that doctors too rightly want that their community should be left alone so that they can do their jobs safely. Shame on us, shame on our lawmakers and shame on our system that cannot even ensure that those who attack doctors are sent behind bars for at least 10 years as rightly proposed by IMA and heavy fine of Rs 5 lakh also imposed which may even be raised if the damage is more. No more excuses, no more delays, no more ifs and buts! Only and only prompt action is needed to enact a strict law that is enforced in totality and with swiftness to ensure that those who lay their dirty hands on doctors are made to face the dire consequences! Assault on doctors must be made a non-bailable offence! No compromise can be done here.
By Sanjeev Sirohi