Fifty-year-old Lakshmi stood outside the administrative block of the Egmore Children's Hospital in Chennai with three two litre bottles of water stacked near her feet. She had arrived at the hospital with her daughter and 25-day old grandson from Trichy for the child's treatment. It was close to 4 pm and she was waiting for the visiting hours to begin, so that she could give her daughter the bottles. Was it clean drinking water for mother and child?
"No", she says, "If I don't give this to her, she can't use the bathroom. There is no water in any of the toilets inside," she declares.
Poorly maintained bathrooms and not a drop of water
With heavy rains pounding the city on Wednesday, people had to wade through water to enter the Children’s Hospital. Inside the institute, however, the contrast was shocking. We entered multiple wards on various floors to find the bathrooms ill-maintained and with no water supply.
"Don't go in there, there is absolutely no water," a sanitation worker warns, as we enter the bathroom in the general ward. The stench of urine which was evident in the ward, now becomes unbearable. We tried the bathroom taps and the one at the washbasin, only to confirm the cleaner's words.
What’s more, even the drums that were supposed to carry water for patients to wash their hands and flush toilets, were bone dry.
"We came to Chennai because the hospital in Trichy did not have the facilities to treat my grandson. But I couldn't stop crying when I saw the condition of the wards here," says Lakshmi. "There is no water for my daughter to even wash her hands. We keep going up to give her bottles during visiting hours. The child is already sick, how can the mother touch him after using the bathroom if there is no water?" she asks angrily.
Her lament was the question asked throughout the six blocks of this government hospital, which has 834 beds and specialised wards. That would mean that the hospital requires enough water in its wards for at least 1668 people (mother and child) every day. According to administrators present, the hospital buys eight to ten tankers with a capacity of 16,000 litres of water a day. In addition to this, they draw water from six borewells in the premises. But parents present at the venue allege that they receive running water for about two hours a day.
"We don't know what time that water will come. So, when it does, we run to the bathrooms and take a bath," says 34-year-old Devi, whose seven-year-old daughter is receiving treatment for a clot in the liver. "We all have our individual buckets and bottles in which we fill water and keep to use for the rest of the day," she adds.
‘No water-shortage,’ says hospital
Hospital staff, however, deny the charge. "We provide them with water for 24 hours a day," says Dr Y Srinivasan, Registrar of ICH. "There has been no shortage so far and there is water in all the toilets. It is costing the hospital a lot of money but we can't take risks with the health of children," he says confidently.
As requested by TNM, Dr Y Srinivasan agreed to examine the state of the wards. While we began at the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), we were not allowed to go into the bathrooms to check the condition in an effort to control the spread of any infection. But when the doctor questioned the nurse present about the availability of water, she claimed that there was a steady supply. "When there is no water, we can call any of these numbers and get it fixed," she said pointing to a list on the wall.
No water in ICU?
Outside the PICU, however, attendants had a different story to tell. "There was no water even this morning in the ICU," says 22-year-old Mutharasu, whose sister's child has been admitted here for the last 10 days. "My sister had to literally run out to the paid bathroom outside to take a bath and get back to the child. They only allow mothers inside and she can't even use the bathroom at any time besides the visiting hours," he alleged.
But with the lack of funds, many families have no choice but to go to government hospitals. "We can't afford to go anywhere else," says Devi. "It is not just here, look at the children who died without oxygen in Uttar Pradesh. This apathy is everywhere," she adds.
The paid bathroom inside the hospital premises is a ten-minute walk from the main block, and had only latrines with running water. This visitor's bathroom was in complete disarray with dirty and stained toilets.
The next stop was the fever ward, packed with children and their mothers. With the registrar in tow, this reporter turned the washbasin’s tap on. There was not a drop of water.
"There must be some problem now," says Dr Srinivasan hastily. "There is usually water here. But you know there is drought. We do as much as we can," he trails off, walking out of the bathroom that reeks of urine.