At the government-run SSKM Hospital, Kolkata, a ‘home away from home’ for politicians
IT’S EASY to see why Woodburn Block at the government-run SSKM Hospital in Kolkata is the first stop for ‘sick’ politicians, especially those one step away from detention. With rooms equipped with fridges and LED TVs, this VVIP wing is a far cry from the rest of the premier multi-specialty institute, with long queues of patients waiting to be treated and harassed staff struggling to keep up .
In recent years, nearly every member of Trinamool’s ruling congress facing cases has landed here. In 2015, then transport minister Madan Mitra was here for five of the six months he was arrested in the Saradha voucher fund scam. In 2021, the late Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukerjee and former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee were both housed here after their arrest in the Narada case. On July 24, the Directorate of Enforcement claimed in the High Court in Calcutta that former minister Partha Chatterjee, arrested in the teacher recruitment case, was “pretending to be ill” at the SSKM. The court ordered Chatterjee to be checked by AIIMS Bhubaneswar instead, and after AIIMS decided he did not need to be hospitalized, the former TMC No. 2 was eventually arrested.
A few days later, on August 8, the SSKM finally turned away Anubrata Mandal – who had spent 17 days here in April while avoiding a CBI summons in a cattle smuggling case – leading to his arrest.
The Woodburn Block is named after British Lieutenant Governor Sir John Woodburn, known for his commendable work during the plague epidemic that swept through Calcutta (as it was then called) in the early 20th century. Incidentally, apart from hospitals, he had carried out extensive reforms in the prison department of Bengal.
The Woodburn Block has 35 rooms in all, of three types – the most expensive are for a reasonable price of Rs 4,000 per day, and others for Rs 2,000 or Rs 2,500. An attendant comes at Rs 750 just as easy on the pocket for 24 hours.
Marzuana Bibi, a resident of Murshidabad, is among those waiting at the hospital for a room in her orthopedic ward. She’s heard of the politicians herded into the SSKM for days, she says; among the viral memes circulating, one describes the hospital as “a home away from home” for TMC leaders.
“I’ve been trying to get a bed for three days. But my mother is being treated outside the ward, with the doctors saying they will allocate a bed as soon as one is free,” says Marzuana.
Opposition parties accuse the TMC government of reducing the Woodburn Block to a ‘resort’ for tainted party leaders, with those admitted here able to keep a low profile until the matter is watered down or they manage to get a bond.
BJP State Chairman Sukanta Majumdar says, “These leaders enjoy state hospitality at SSKM. It is easy to influence government hospital authorities and get reports in their favour. This must stop.
Dr Manas Gumta, secretary of the Association of Health Service Physicians, said: “Doctors are undoubtedly under pressure from political leaders. If a request comes from the highest authority, what can be done?
TMC chief Madan Mitra, among those who have had an extended stay at the SSKM, is full of pride while describing Woodburn Block as a ‘royal suite’. “If the BJP leaders are summoned and they want to take refuge here, I will admit them. Woodburn is like a royal suite in a king’s palace. You get the best facilities in a government setup…at half the price. Out of 35 cabins, 30 are mostly occupied by ordinary people, so the BJP’s claims are nonsense.
He further jokes that not only the disease, the BJP seems to say that the Bengal run hospital “has so much power that it can also protect anyone from ED and CBI.”
Dr. Gautam Das, Professor of Surgery at SSKM Hospital says they always have an influx of patients as the super-specialty hospital is one of a kind in Bengal. “Anyone can get a bed in the Woodburn Block; there is no bar. But it is also true that political figures or personalities take advantage of it, ”he says.
Stressing that the block is not equipped to handle patients requiring immediate intervention, Dr Das admitted there could be a gray area in admissions. “Sometimes under pressure, even if someone does not need hospitalization, it is advised according to the convenience of the patient.”
Sources said that following the recent controversy, a decision has been made to ensure appeals regarding celebrity admissions are taken strictly on the advice of the team or medical board formed to vet them.
Incidentally, the number of non-VIP patients has been increasing at Woodburn Block since Partha Chattterjee was sent to AIIMS in an embarrassing snub. On the day The Indian Express visited the block, 90% of the beds were occupied and there was not a single VIP patient.
While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee holds the health portfolio, the SSKM medical superintendent declined to comment on the matter.