AIIMS ROW-TRUTH WINS-SATYAMEV JAYATE.

The 66-year-old Venugopal’s tenure at the AIIMS as its Director, who was appointed to the post on July 3, 2003, was a smooth affair till May 2006. But trouble began as he got involved in a bitter turf war with Ramadoss on running the institution, which got a twist with quota issue thrown in.

The unceremonious exit of Venugopal from the institute came last November after Parliament passed an amendment to the AIIMS Act prescribing the age limit of its Director at 65 years. He was sacked after President Pratibha Patil gave assent to the law.

I had commented at that time that the only premier Medical Institute of World Repute in India – AIIMS was set to DOOM as a Bill is getting passed by the Parliament in this effect. Once passed the autonomy of the institute, which is in the Guiness Book of World Record for treating record no. of patient (25 Lakhs per annum), would be a thing of the past.

Its illustrious director Dr. P. Venugopal would be removed with in hours as he is the target of the political vendetta. The ultimtely loser in the process would be the country’s medical sciences! In his argument in Parliament, the Health Minister said he wanted to make AIIMS as the level of Harvard Medical College, Stanford and John Hopkin’s Medical Centre. But the tenure of their heads was like 17, 13 and 10 years respectively. How intelligent a minister he was!!

The relevant provisions in the AIIMS bill were as under:

¶(1A) The Director shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or until he attains the age of sixty-five years, whichever is earlier:
Provided that any person holding office as a Director immediately before the commencement of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (Amendment) Act, 2007, shall in so far as his appointment is inconsistent with the provisions of this sub-section, cease to hold office on such commencement as such Director and shall be entitled to claim compensation not exceeding three months pay and allowances for the premature termination of his office or of any contract of sevice.

(1B) Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1A), the Central Government shall, if it is of the opinion that it is in the public interest so to do, have the right to terminate the term of office of the Director at any time before the expiry of his term by
giving him a notice of not less than three months in writing or three months’ salary and allowances in lieu thereof¶.

Clearly, the Bill was a clumsy effort to ease out the then Director of AIIMS.

AIIMS had been sharply divided ever after the anti-reservation agitation, in which the institute played a pivotal role.

Those who opposed Dr Venugopal said, the institute would now be able to recover some lost face and would thus function better.

But on the contrary, many doctors and students claimed that the government’s interference in running the institute had killed all motivation to work in the public health sector, and the exit of Dr Venugopal could see an exodus.

I had stated that It was a matter of regret and shame for the Government of India to indulge in such cheap revenge methods for having lost practically the reservation case at the Supreme Court of India for reservations of seats for OBC in the higher institutes of learning for which the Director of AIIMs and the Medicos of the AIIMS had fought a stupendous battle. That the Government of a
country like India which was biggest democracy in the world should have resorted to such cheap tactics really was shameful for the country and the Health Minister who was an unscruplous man who had piloted this Bill which would always be considered an act of infamy for the Manmohan Government.

The Supreme Court annulling the Amendment law came on a petition filed by Venugopal in November.

The apex court, during a hearing in December, termed his removal as ”very unfortunate” and even asked the government ”why such a reputed person is humiliated” when he has barely months to retire.

The relationship between Ramadoss and Venugopal soured as the Health Minister accused him of defying orders from his Ministry and instigating the anti-quota agitations in the institute after Parliament cleared 27 per cent OBC quota in higher institutes of
learning.

A government-appointed committee headed by UGC Chairman Sukhadeo Thorat, which was set up to look into the allegations of discrimination against SC/ST students at AIIMS, also charged him of ”playing a provocative role” in the agitation against the OBC quota.

Charges and counter-charges flew thick and fast with Ramadoss accusing the veteran surgeon, who is credited as the first Indian to perform a heart transplant, of running AIIMS with the help of a coterie.

Ramadoss even termed Venugopal, a Padma Bhushan awardee, as a ”great doctor but a bad administrator” while anti-Venugopal doctors accusing him of not doing enough for the welfare of all sections of AIIMS employees.

In return, Venugopal, the longest serving surgeon in AIIMS, and his supporting doctors claimed that Ramadoss was trying to control the institute and was interfering in its autonomy, which was detrimental to the interests of the premier institute.

Ramadoss hit back saying as the president of the Institute he has certain obligations and duties to perform and in Supreme Court, the Centre said autonomy was for the institution and not for Venugopal.

Both the government and Venugopal approached courts on various occasions to counter each other on a variety of issues involving AIIMS.

A large section of resident doctors of the AIIMS as well as faculty came in support for the surgeon and organised a number of candlelight vigils and protests against the move.

The battle between the duo also witnessed the Minister refusing to sign the degree certificates of AIIMS graduates saying they bore the signature of the Registrar whose appointment he held was illegal.

Pro-Venugopal doctors at the AIIMS had at that time attacked the government for securing in haste the Presidential assent for the controversial bill fixing 65 year limit for its Director while another section said the measure gave incumbent P Venugopal an honourable exit.

Terming the government’s move as ”undemocratic and unconstitutional”, the Resident Doctors Association, which backed Director P Venugopal, said they did not understand the haste depicted by the government in the matter when Supreme Court was to hear a petition
against the bill on Monday.

”President giving assent to the bill was expected from the way it was rushed through the Parliament. This happens when the apex court has fixed Monday for hearing. This shows that there is something wrong in the Bill,” RDA president Kumar Harsh had said.

Association General Secretary Anil Sharma had stated that they had full faith in judiciary and would wait for the Supreme Court to give a final say in the matter.

Faculty Association spokesperson Vinod Khaitan refused to comment on the presidential assent for the bill saying the matter was sub judice. Khaitan was also a petitioner at the Supreme Court against the legislation.

Meanwhile, Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, an anti-Venugopal grouping, welcomed the legislation but said it gave the eminent heart surgeon an ”honourable exit”.

Venugopal had then moved the Supreme Court challenging the measure against which a section of AIIMS resident doctors supporting him had gone on strike.

The protest was withdrawn following tough words from Delhi High Court which ordered action against the strikers.

Venugopal, Director, AIIMS was then sacked and Dr. Dogra had become acting Director of AIIMS. The haste with which Dr. Venugopal was dismissed was really a slur on the face of the Government. It clearly showed that the AIIMS Bill was brought forth just to sack Dr.
Venugopal and was an act of political vendetta.

According to the Bill as then amended and assented to by the President, the Director shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or until he attains the age of sixty-five years, whichever is earlier: Provided that any person holding office as a Director immediately before the commencement of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Post-Graduate
Institute of Medical Education and Research (Amendment) Act, 2007, shall in so far as his appointment is inconsistent with the provisions of this sub-section, cease to hold office on such commencement as such Director and shall be entitled to claim compensation not exceeding three months pay and allowances for the premature termination of his office or of any contract of service.

The Bill also provided that the Central Government shall, if it is of the opinion that it is in the public interest so to do, have the right to terminate the term of office of the Director at any time before the expiry of his term by giving him a notice of not
less than three months in writing or three months’ salary and allowances in lieu thereof.

It was clear from the above provisions in the Bill that the autonomy of the AIIMS was gone as any Director appointed as its Head would be at the mercy of the Government which would be able to dismiss him at any time by giving him three months’ salary and allowances. This was simply ridiculous. That an institute of the status of AIIMS and its Director should have been made so subservient, would have made
it lose its status as a Research Institute in the eyes of the whole world. The Director of the Institute had then simply been made like an ordinary Peon who could be dismissed by giving him three months’ salary. Clearly, the Minister of Health and the Government of India wanted to play an autocratic role in so far as AIIMS was concerned, simply because the medicos at the AIIMS had challenged the Government’s reservation policy for OBCs in the Institute of Higher Learning.

The Central Government on Thursday received a major setback with the Supreme Court striking down the law that enabled premature retirement of noted cardiologist P Venugopal as the Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) after a raging
row with Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss.

A bench of Justices Tarun Chatterjee and H S Bedi upheld the appeal filed by Venugopal challenging the law as being discriminatory and purposely brought in to superannuate him.

Venugopal had contended that the amendment was brought with the sole purpose of removing him from his office due to his differences with Ramadoss.

The amendment relating to the AIIMS Act fixed the upper age of retirement of Director at 65 years leading to Venugopal’s retirement.

Senior counsel and former Law Minister Arun Jaitely had contended on behalf of Venugopal that the Act was illegal as the High Court had in March last year upheld his continuation in the post and the matter was pending in the apex court. But the Centre in the meantime brought the amendment in Parliament, he said.

Noted cardiologist P Venugopal on Thursday said the Supreme Court verdict annulling the law that resulted in his removal as AIIMS Director has thwarted the ¶game-plan carried out in Parliament¶.

¶I am happy that the Supreme Court has upheld the truth,¶ Venugopal said.

While Venugopal did not talk to the reporters directly, he conveyed his reaction to them through senior resident doctor Anil Sharma.

¶The decision has thwarted the game-plan carried out in Parliament,¶ Sharma said quoting Venugopal, who made no direct reference to Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss with whom he had a bitter row.

The Resident Doctors Association of the hospital, which has been backing Venugopal in his tussle with Ramadoss, maintained that he would be back in office as soon as possible.

The BJP on Thursday demanded sacking of Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss in the wake of Supreme Court striking down a law which ensured the exit of AIIMS Director Dr P Venugopal.

Besides demanding sacking of the embattled Health Minister, the party also targeted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for ¶failing¶ to protect the premier institute of national importance.

¶I demand the resignation of Ramadoss and if he is not resigning I want the Prime Minister to dismiss him forthwith,¶ senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj told reporters.

She described the Supreme Court’s ruling as the ¶defeat of Ramadoss and his malafide intentions and the defeat of the Prime Minister and his government.¶

¶The Supreme Court striking down the AIIMS Amendment Act has established that Health Minister Ramadoss’ intention was malafide and dishonest,¶ she said.

She said the apex court’s ruling has established that the Health Minister has ¶misused¶ the Parliament for satisfying his personal ego.

The Union Health Minister however said there was no question of resignation as AIIMS law was passed by Parliament.

Ramadoss said the future course action would be decided after going through the Supreme Court order.

The Supreme Court Judgement in Venugopal’s case proves that the people of this country are not wrong in having more faith in the judiciary than they have in their elected representatives. When the whole legislature made it a point to pass an act for just settling personal vendatta of the health Minister and thus committing a Himalayan blunder, it was left to the Judiciary to set the things right by re-instating Dr. Venugopal. Kudos to the Supreme Court.

Satbir Singh Bedi

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