Oct 25, 2011 (Calcutta tube / IBNS): Kunal Saha’s name still does not ring a bell in New Delhi media like the many lesser fighters who bask in the regular national channels’ spotlight. But the HIV/AIDS researcher from Ohio battling India’s corrupt healthcare system after his wife’s death from medical negligence in 1998 is a one-man army who this October was awarded the highest ever medical damage by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC). Saha in conversation with Sujoy Dhar.
I knew Kunal Saha through telephonic conversations and e-mails since May 1999 as a Kolkata journalist reporting his case. But I saw him first in the September of 2000 at the Greyhound bus depot of Columbus in Ohio, USA. He came driving his black Nissan to receive me. At a glance, the six-foot-tall robust built man in a navy blue suit and trademark dark glasses looked like a don. But behind the robust façade and indomitable spirit to wage a legal crusade against the medical system in India lies a vulnerable man who lost the love of his life- wife Anuradha. Inside his office chamber what first confronted my eyes was a picture of Anuradha in black and white. But that was only the beginning of confronting someone who inhabited Kunal’s world perhaps more than when she was present in flesh and blood. In Kunal’s house her presence can be felt everywhere. Excerpts of an interview the National Co.
This judgement is the highest ever compensation amount awarded by a court in medical negligence case in India, but you said you are unhappy and will move the Supreme Court. Is it not enough?
Even though this is the highest compensation ever awarded in India against an errant doctor or hospital, the NCDRC judgment is a travesty of justice for more reasons than one. No matter how big Rs.1.7 crore as awarded by NCDRC for the wrongful death of my wife may look in India, I’ve already spent far more than this amount to fight this long-distance legal battle against the highly influential doctors for the past more than 13 years. Moreover, Rs. 1.7 crore is not even equivalent to 3 lakh dollars in the US. Anuradha was a child psychologist trained in an Ivy League college (Columbia University) in the US who could have earned this much money in one or two years. Her life and promising career were snatched away by the Kolkata doctors in the most reckless manner when she was only 36. The NCDRC did not consider these basic but unique facts of this particular case while calculating the quantum of compensation.
How difficult was the fight?
After Anu’s death in 1998, when I decided that I must try to bring justice not only for my wife but also for the countless victims of medical negligence, this was truly a seemingly impossible task because of the prevailing situation in India. My closest doctor friend in India also urged me not to waste money or energy with the hope to bring justice against the rich and influential members of the medical community. Even my family and friends in America did not encourage me to fight. Anybody can easily imagine how difficult this fight has been from the simple fact that it took more than thirteen years, crores of rupees and numerous trips back and forth between India and USA even to reach where I stand today. You had to make several personal sacrifices, including at your work, to fight this battle.
While as doctor and faculty member in one of the largest public universities in America (Ohio State University), I made a decent income even in US standard. But the enormous legal and other associated expenses (e.g. frequent trips to India) for more than 13 years in order to continue this battle, I had to take huge personal loan, so much so that I was compelled to declare bankruptcy last year. I also had to foreclose my home recently. I’ve been attacked even in my profession by the devious medical lobby in India as I was fighting not only against the Kolkata doctors but also against corrupt national medical leaders like the ex-MCI president, Dr. Ketan Desai and corruption with spurious HIV kits in NACO. Despite my thriving research success in HIV/AIDS, my university (OSU) refused to grant me tenure on the ground of my long and frequent stay in India in combination with the sinister link with the unscrupulous Indian medical leaders. My case against this unjustified and discriminatory attack by the OSU is still pending before the Ohio Supreme Court.
What drove you to fight on and on, despite so many setbacks.
This fight against medical negligence is to bring justice not only for my departed wife but also for the countless other Anuradhas who are dying from gross medical malpractice in hospitals and nursing homes across India every day. It is a crusade for me and when you fight for a “crusade”, you never experience a “setback”. Of course, I’ve gone through many dark nights over the past 13 years when it became crystal clear that sheer corruption was denying justice.
The doctors against whom you waged this battle are practicing and reputable ones.
It is truly ironic the doctor who was responsible for Anuradha’s death, Dr. Sukumar Mukherjee, is still practicing in Kolkata solely because his decadent friends and medical colleagues have remained at the helm of healthcare to shield him from justice. Even when the Apex Court has categorically found Dr. Mukherjee’s treatment of Anuradha as reckless and grossly negligent, the doctor members of the West Bengal Medical Council (WBMC) found nothing wrong with his therapy and exonerated Dr. Mukherjee from all charges of negligence. But after I moved an appeal with the Medical Council of India (MCI) against the WBMC’s overtly wrong and biased decision, the doctor members of the MCI agreed with my contention and held Dr. Mukherjee negligent in Anuradha’s treatment and passed an order earlier this year to cancel the medical license of Dr. Muherjee (and also Dr. Halder) for a period of three months. I’ve also discovered recently that the members of the WBMC deliberately suppressed even their own experts’ opinions to protect Dr. Mukherjee and Dr. Halder. The WBMC is rotten to its core. In fact, the Bankshall Court has already indicted 17 doctor members of WBMC including its president, Dr. Ashok Chowdhury, for “criminal conspiracy” (IPC Section 120B) and “screening offender” (IPC Section 201) for shielding Dr. Mukherjee and Dr. Halder.
You said earlier that Anuradha even in death inspires you to fight.
Yes, as I said in the past, starting from the moment that Anuradha’s heart monitor went flat in the ICU of the Breach Candy Hospital on May 28, 1998 but I clearly saw her telling me to fight against this needless sacrifice of innocent patients’ lives by the hitherto “untouchable” and increasingly greedy doctors of India, all the inspiration and strength to fight this uneven and virtually impossible battle against the social evil of “medical negligence” have always come from Anuradha. Although her earthly presence is gone more than 13 years ago, she has always stayed with me in spirit and guided me in the most sublime and indescribable manner that has helped me to sail through the darkest nights to reach close to my final destination today.
You said you will move apex court.
I will move the Supreme Court against the obvious and numerous flaws in the NCDRC decision seeking an enhancement for the quantum of compensation. The Supreme Court has previously shown a sense of great urgency in Anuradha’s case. While remanding this case back to the NCDRC in 2009 for the sole purpose to determine the quantum of compensation, the Supreme Court categorically directed NCDRC to dispose of this case within a period of “6 months”. Unfortunately, even the direction of the Apex Court was not enough for the National Commission as it eventually took more than two years to pass the final judgment. But I strongly feel that the ultimate round of this historic case (after I file an appeal to the SC) will be decided by the Apex Court in a truly expedited manner to bring equitable justice for Anuradha and hapless victims of medical negligence across India.
You are seen as an anti-doctor person.
The disgraced ex-MCI chief, Dr. Ketan Desai and other Machiavellian leaders of the Indian medical community have always attempted to portray an anti-doctor character for me. The truth is exactly the opposite. I’m a doctor myself. My father and many of my family members are also doctor themselves. How could I be an anti-doctor? I’ve no doubt that most members of the medical community in India would agree with me that corrupt doctors like Dr. Ketan Desai should have no place in medicine. They also need to appreciate that a small number of unscrupulous medical leaders have looted the entire healthcare system and given a bad name for the entire medical community in India. The “bad apples” must be identified and removed permanently.