May 25, 2006

As India’s caste quota ire grows, patients can wait

By Kamil Zaheer

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Lying on the floor in a state
hospital in New Delhi, 16-year-old Pushpendra has been waiting
to get a bed since Monday.

His blood platelet count hovers at a dangerous
30,000-40,000, far below normal and the orphaned high school
student's skin has a yellow hue.

He is suspected of having leukemia but no one knows when,
or if, he'll receive treatment in time.

Across India, thousands of junior doctors, interns and
medical students have been on strike for weeks in many cities
-- from Kolkata in the east to Ahmedabad in the west --
crippling state health services.

They have been protesting against a far-reaching government
decision to more than double college quotas for lower castes
including in medical, management and engineering colleges.

Despite the nationwide protests by upper-caste students and
professionals, the government has refused to backdown with an
eye on millions of lower-caste votes, and has even threatened
to fire junior doctors if they continue their strike.

In the standoff, patients are suffering.

"Time is passing. We have been running around for days but
due to the strike, no one is helping him," Chetan Prakash, a
relative of Pushpendra, said.

"We hope he is saved before it is too late," he said,
looking at Pushpendra whose tired head rests in the lap of a
worried maternal aunt who lovingly runs a hand through his
black hair.

Pushpendra is from near Aligarh town, 130 km (80 miles)
west of New Delhi. Doctors there, suspecting leukemia, referred
him to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a state-run
hospital in New Delhi.

Across the hospital's sprawling compound, hundreds of
patients have been waiting for hours or even days for
treatment, many sprawled on sheets on the floor.

"No one cares," Pushpendra said, looking into space, when
asked if he expected to get medical attention soon.


Under the new proposals, nearly 50 percent of seats in
federally funded colleges and professional institutes in India
would be reserved for lower castes and tribes, up from nearly a
quarter now.

Though India has officially outlawed caste discrimination,
the ancient Hindu social system remains very much a reality and
is a cause of tension and even killings in rural areas.

In 1990, a government move to reserve more jobs for lower
castes -- who have traditionally had less chances for quality
education and prize government jobs -- led to dozens of
upper-caste students burning themselves to death.

Anti-quota protesters say with more seats reserved for
lower castes, it will be harder for upper-caste students
competing on merit to get into top higher educational

On Tuesday night, the government said it would implement
the new college quotas by the academic session in June 2007.

This has intensified protests with hundreds of senior
doctors joining medical students in going on strike at
government hospitals and even some shopkeepers keeping their
stores closed in New Delhi and the western city of Jaipur on

In the central city of Bhopal, doctors and medical
students, holding banners reading "Say no to reservation" sat
in front of a gate of a state hospital, not allowing patients
to enter.

In the western city of Ahmedabad, hundreds of patients
waited in long queues in searing heat and many were turned

"I have been waiting for two days now," said 56-year-old
Usman Miyan, a heart patient who suffers from breathing

"It is better to wait for a doctor than pay a hefty fee in
a private hospital," said the frail Miyan, lying among dozens
of others on mattresses on the floor.

In New Delhi, when asked about the quota controversy,
Pushpendra, dressed in a blue check shirt and blue trousers,
smiled, his bright white teeth lighting up his tired face.

"I don't know about this."

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain Nair in AHMEDABAD)