The frequency with which the IFS fraternity is losing its members to COVID-19 is heart breaking. Although the Foreign Service is rather small, all of us do not meet each other because of the very nature of our peripatetic existence. We know some very intimately if we are posted together in a mission, some formally if we are posted in Delhi, some casually at conferences or social gatherings or in the corridors of South Block. Many are known only by reputation or the despatches they send. So no one is a stranger and there is a special bond among us.
Of late, I open the IFS group mail with trepidation because sad stories of illness and death appear in it all too frequently.
We look at Covid casualty figures with cold acceptance, but when a name is attached to a number, a numbness sets in, memories come like sea waves and we express shock and sympathy, depending on the depth of the relationship we may have had with the dear departed.
The pain is even more when the person concerned is younger, which happens these days as Covid does not choose its victims in any particular order.
When the news of the demise of former Ambassador to Brunei, Mozambique and Algeria, Ashok Amrohi came in the group, it was shocking as I knew he was many years younger to me, though our paths had never crossed. I had heard of him from common friends about his professional competence, his personal charm, his sense of humour, his humility and his zest for life. The death by Covid has a particular poignancy and I conveyed it in a short message of prayers and moved on.
Then a horror story of the circumstances of his death came like a bolt from the blue the very next day. When Ashok developed serious Covid symptoms a few days earlier, the family managed to get a bed for him under the health scheme for retired officers at the reputed Medanta hospital and took him there. His wife stayed with him in the car in the parking lot of the hospital while his son went to register him at the reception. What followed was a series of heartless, reckless and criminal actions by the hospital staff. They sent Ashok’s son from pillar to post with various formalities for five hours, insisting that the doctors would see the patient only after he is admitted to the hospital.
Ashok was, in the meantime, struggling for breath and fighting for survival and his wife was pleading with everyone for help. Someone brought in oxygen, which was administered to him inside the car itself. But the delay in getting appropriate medical help literally murdered him in cold blood inside the car. By the time his son returned to wheel him into the hospital, he had passed away and he had to be moved to the mortuary instead. It was a case of criminal negligence, callous behaviour, nothing short of murder. “Though the hospital had promised a bed initially, the admission process stretched on for hours due to long queues. They waited more than an hour for the Covid test. I went to the place at least thrice, begging them for someone to look at him. I was crying, I was shouting that his heartbeat is failing. But nobody helped. An oxygen cylinder was brought, but that did not help,” his wife Yamini Amrohi said.
Certainly, what happened to Ashok is not an isolated event. Thousands of people have perished all around the world in diverse circumstances, rich, poor, young and old. Though India managed to handle the first wave of the coronavirus reasonably well, we were caught unawares by the second wave, which brought untold suffering, death and devastation to the country. India became short of the most essential materials to save lives and no facilities even for cremating the dead with honour. It was only months earlier that India had won acclaim as the “pharmacy of the world”, having provided Covid related relief supplies to 92 countries. Pictures of some of the cremation grounds remind us of Dante's inferno. In these circumstances, is it fair to expect a better treatment for Ashok?
It is here that we have to think of the retired life of Indian diplomats. They live in different countries for more than thirty years, with their roots in India becoming weaker. They build friendships abroad through professional contacts, but most of those links disappear over a period of time. When they come back to India, they may have basic comforts, but no safety net in their tough old age. They have no social status as retirement is a great leveller unless they have post-retirement employment or other sources of income.
In Delhi only those in power and the very rich are respected. Others have to live in relative loneliness and depend on the health programme provided by the Government, with its tragic consequences.
Though it may sound an argument for discrimination among retired bureaucrats, it may be advisable to give some special benefits to our diplomats who live in different climates, develop alien food habits and expose themselves to culture shocks.
It is believed that the casualty rate in the Foreign Service is only a little less than that in the armed forces. Many have sustained injuries in accidents and attacks, which require continued medical treatment. When a brilliant young officer, S V Purushottam, passed away suddenly in New York, it was believed that his system was weakened by excessive official travel and cumulative jet lag.
I still carry metal plates in an arm and a leg, as the result of a politically motivated armed attack in Kenya.
As all these are part of the occupational hazards of the Foreign Service. Don't they deserve some special care after retirement? Ashok's tragic death should open the eyes of the government to the plight of our former diplomats and others in similar categories. The Indian Foreign Service Association is trying to put a system in place, but it cannot be done without the involvement of the Ministry of External Affairs.
I believe retired military and police officers are more organised as the serving officers are solicitous about their seniors. A similar system should be put in place for our diplomats in the evening of their lives.
In the particular case of Ashok Amrohi, what happened was second degree murder by the Medanta hospital for which every guilty person should be brought to book.
In addition, substantial compensation should be paid to the family. That should give some solace to the departed soul and comfort to others who live precariously back in India, after giving their best to the nation in different parts of the globe.
(T P Sreenivasan is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)