Op-Ed: Dr. Pujahari’s resignation: No Winners In This Game

The resignation of Dr. Ashwini Pujahari, Director of Veer Surendra Sai Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (VIMSAR), Burla has brought to an end the long-running impasse in this premier government medical institution in western Odisha. But the unexpected denouement of this sordid saga has several important lessons for future.

The first of these lessons is this: a sledgehammer hammer does not work in the long run, especially in an academic institution, even when it is resorted to with the best of intentions. Dr. Pujahari had ruffled far too many feathers with his unorthodox approach to enforcing discipline in the campus during his eventful stint as Director of the institute. As they say, “A bad workman quarrels with his tools.”

It is possible that his Army background had something to do with his out of box thinking as evident in conducting ‘stings’ on absentee fellow doctors engaged in private practice, locking up the room of an officer for arriving late, shaving the head of an alcoholic patient, barging into a professor’s class and humiliating him in front of his students. But he must have realized by now that the ways of the Army do not work in civilian life where one has to carry everyone along in whatever one does. These unconventional methods pitted him irreconcilably against virtually everyone in the campus: teachers, junior doctors and students and, finally, the state government. By the time his battle of attrition with his colleagues and students entered the final round with the indefinite strike by the Junior Doctors’ Association (JDA), Dr. Pujahari had lost the support of sections of the people of Sambalpur and Burla, who had backed him to the hilt in the initial stages.

One can question his way of dealing with the problem of indiscipline. But even his worst enemies cannot question the motive behind it: to bring some order and accountability in the institution. The circumstances in which he had to go prove that the well entrenched vested interests can gang up to defeat the best laid plans of anyone with political backing. Now that Dr. Pujahari is out of the scene, these sections would heave a huge sigh of relief. It would also make his successor, whoever s/he is, wary of wielding the iron fist in future.

While the intention of Dr. Pujahari is beyond question, the same cannot be said about those ranged against him. Why, for example, should the students have a problem with Dr. Pujahari’s plans to conduct the MBBS examination at VIMSAR and insist that it be held in the Sambalpur University campus as before? The only inference one can draw is that they were apprehensive that the no-nonsense Director would not allow malpractice they have come to depend on to clear their examinations.

It is easy to see that with Dr. Pujahari gone, it would soon be business as usual in VIMSAR. Teachers would remain regularly absent during duty hours, do private practice and fleece patients; junior doctors would do as they please; students would indulge in malpractice and politicians would regain their lost relevance in the campus. Just about the only person who will lose out is the poor patient, who cannot afford costly medical care.

The resignation of Pujahari has also put the state government’s role under the scanner. Its conduct during the whole episode is marked by indecisiveness, ad-hocism and a series of flip flops. When the junior doctors rose up in arms barely weeks after Dr. Pujahari took over, it had lent its support to the Director and promptly gave him administrative power, which had prevented him from taking action against the students. But as his battle with his colleagues and students got uglier, it appeared to have gone to the other extreme as exemplified by the decision to ask Dr. Pujahari to go on leave.

It is nobody’s case that the government should have backed Dr. Pujahari till the very end. After all, no government could afford to have the campus of a premier medical institution perennially on the boil. But what prevented it from taking a call either way for over two months? If the findings of the inquiry committee instituted by it were damning enough, it could have sacked Dr. Pujahari on that basis. If not, it should have asked him to join duty and made it clear to those against him that he was here to stay. In sitting over the report for two months, the government did not exactly cover itself with glory. [It is possible though that it was procrastinating in the hope that he would do precisely what he ultimately did – resign on his own – and spare itself the embarrassment of sacking someone who still enjoys the support of a sizeable section of the local population.]

Those ranged against him must be rejoicing on seeing his back. But Dr. Pujahari’s departure is nothing to rejoice over. There are no winners in this game. Everyone is a loser. And VIMSAR is the biggest of them all!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)