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Bombay HC directs state not to take punitive action against resident doctors if they resume work

Mumbai: The Bombay high court on Thursday directed the state and BMC not to take any punitive action against resident doctors who were on mass leave if they resume and asked the doctors to get back to work as the government promised to deploy 1100 armed security in April.

The first deployment of 500 guards will be in Mumbai on April 5 said the state.

The court also asked for strict implementation of a rule to permit entry of only two relatives with a patient at all time. Such measure would resolve the safety issue to a large extent, felt the court. "Patients must have confidence in doctors. They cannot stand there watching...'' said the bench. "Each hospital has to make proper arrangement to not allow more than two relatives, including during visiting hours.''

At a hearing, the HC bench of Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice Girish Kulkarni which said it had read all earlier orders passed by the court on the issue of assaults on doctors, said the "state cannot ignore'' its own doctors' safety. The HC directed the state not to act on suspension or expulsion notices to which it had issued, on doctors who resume.

The bench was hearing a public interest litigation filed in 2015 against Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors (MARD) going on strike following several violent attacks by relatives of patients. Recent attacks on doctors by relatives of patients in Dhule and Mumbai had led to another strike in the form of a mass leave by resident doctors, leaving municipal and state hospitals in chaos since Monday. The petitioner, Afak Mandaviya, had sought court's intervention against the ongoing strike.

The state advocate general Rohit Deo began the hearing by saying that only 92 doctors had resumed work in Mumbai hospitals. There were more than 3000 doctors on strike statewide. But the Chief Justice, who on Tuesday had observed why resident doctors don't resign if they were so scared, interjected to ask what safety measures were in place for the doctors. She said, "Before we go to that, I went through earlier orders passed by the court. What are the safety measures taken by the state for the doctors?''

Deo said, "it is an ongoing process, but we have taken a momentous decision to provide 1100 guards from Maharashtra State Security Corporation.'' The court asked if these guards had all the powers that police had. The AG assured the court that they came armed and had power to arrest. The remaining 600 guards will be appointed by April 30, the state said.

The court in a series of order last year had directed the state to provide adequate security to the resident doctors, who are post graduate students pursuing a specialisation. They often form the backbone of civic and state run hospitals.

The court said, "If earlier orders and undertakings given by both—MARD and State-were followed, would this have occurred?' Advocate Rahul Totala appearing for MARD said "doctors want to start attending. But the state needs to implement its earlier undertaken to provide adequate security.''

The AG said, "It is also a social and not only a law and order issue.'' Emotions come into play, he said. "Whose mistake is it? Is it the mistake of hospital managements? Why put them (doctors) to danger?'' asked the court.

The court said it was not just attacks, but their working condition which was the doctors' grievance too. Doctors have been complaining of poor infrastructure and basic facilities for years. When Deo said the working condition is "not conducive,'' the Chief Justice said, "not conducive? Horrible.'' But the bench reminded the doctors that "their duty is to save life.'' The CJ said, "how much study they put in, I know.'' "Unlike lawyers,who can study for six months,'' she smiled, eliciting some smiles in return.

The AG said, the doctors must resume work immediately. "How long will they take the judicial process for a ride?'' "Let the doctors go back (to their duties). We will hear the matter again after 15 days,'' said the bench saying the matter will be heard regularly. BMC lawyer S S Pakale said it would not pursue with its notices against the resident doctors if they resume.

"Doctors work under bad conditions. Hospitals must display the two-relatives rule prominently,'' said advocate Sujay Kantawalla who appeared for Association of Medical Consultants which intervened in the matter to help resolve the issue.

The court also suggested that while there was a committee appointed earlier headed by retired judge, Justice V C Daga, all matters must be resolved by a committee which has BMC, state, MARD and other municipal hospital representatives.

"There must be a via media...there must be an amicable resolution...it is not an everyday incident. It is a mob mentality where emotions play a role,'' said the HC bench and posted the matter for hearing on April 6 again with firm direction to hospitals and state not to take punitive action on notices issued.