Column | Hospital staff on the edge as Health Minister Mandaviya arrives incognito

Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare, Chemicals and Fertilizers, Mansukh Mandaviya
Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare, Chemicals and Fertilizers, Mansukh Mandaviya at the launch of the National Action Plan for Dog Mediated Rabies Elimination by 2030 (NAPRE). Photo: PTI/File

Despite the power and privileges of a central minister Mansukh Mandaviya would like to roam the streets of Delhi incognito either on foot or in a private vehicle. Even after getting promoted to the cabinet and given charge of the heavy portfolios of health and fertilisers recently, Mandaviya has continued his private forays in the last two months.

The minister who is of slim build has been visiting the big government hospitals in Delhi posing as a patient or a visitor to a patient. But a security guard would not let go the insistent Mandaviya into a doctor's consulting room in the Safdarjung Hospital, as consulting hours were over. The guard pushed Mandaviya but during the commotion another employee recognised the minister. But Mandaviya is said to have patted the guard for doing his duty.

Mandaviya said that he had visited the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, the country's largest hospital, without staff or security to see how patients were being treated, and was sad to see that there were several bouncers now in hospital corridors to protect the doctors and other staff from unruly relatives of patients.

In recent years, the government has hired a large number of muscular security personnel at hospitals due to frequent cases of physical protests by people accusing doctor of negligence and medical malpractice. But Mandaviya's confession that he prefers to roam the corridors of hospitals in the country has set off alarm bells, and now his photograph is being widely shared among security staff of government hospitals! One ingenious WhatsApp user has also stimulated the likely disguises in which the minister could come unannounced, adding a moustache and beard to the minister's clean shaven face.

Mandaviya told the doctors at AIIMS that his aim was to find systemic solutions to the problems faced by patients suffering from serious ailments for whom the government hospitals provided the sole hope, and he was unhappy that in big hospitals, like AIIMS and Safdarjung, patients had to wait for days for their first meeting with a doctor, while the waiting list for surgeries was for months and even beyond a year in super specialities.

Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare, Chemicals and Fertilizers Mansukh Mandaviya at the closing session of 4th Indo-US Health Dialogue, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Mixed reactions
The shock tactics of Mandaviya have been appreciated in medical circles, though the medical and security teams are now more alert. Mandaviya had also visited shops set up under the Oushadhi scheme for selling generic drugs at nominal prices across the country, following complaints that many of these shops did not stock common drugs.

Escapades of forerunners
Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, who was health minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee, had a simple disguise in the hospital. He would wear a white coat and have a stethoscope round the shoulders as he walked the miles of corridors in AIIMS. The PMK politician was a medical graduate and he would mingle the dozens of white coats in the corridors as he observed how the hospital functioned. But he got "exposed" when he stayed in the AIIMS guest house and became a regular at the tennis courts, accompanied by gun-toting securitymen.

George Fernandes was another minister who preferred anonymity. During winters a shawl and a woollen cap pulled over the ears was enough of a disguise for the minister to slip into meetings of defence employee unions. When he was made the railway minister, he was driven to the Rail Bhavan by a party colleague in a Premier Padmini car, instead of the white Ambassador used by ministers. The guard at the ministry did not believe Fernandes was the minister and told him to go to the reception.

Prime ministers too often resort to disguise. Jawaharlal Nehru was known to wear a jacket, dark glasses and a wide-brimmed hat while incognito checking on the refugee resettlement projects in Delhi. But increasing security threats have made it difficult for prime ministers to go incognito, though the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, has occasionally said he has made surprise visits without informing bureaucrats or security, like his latest night visit to the construction site of new parliament building. But his critics say, he would always have a cameraman in tow, like when he went to spend the night in a cave in Kedarnath in 2019!

Models abroad
One world leader who regularly went in disguise to hospitals, schools and government offices was King Abdullah II of Jordan and such was the impact he made that every old man with a walking stick was suspect in the capital city Amman.

Established practice
While photographs and videos of ministers and departmental heads can be sent through internet to smart phones, in the earlier era the police had their own security net. All police stations will be supplied with the photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, the President, the Prime Minister, the state Chief Minister, but also of the Director General of Police, the Deputy Inspector General of the range and the District

Police Superintendent.

The officers' photographs would be either on the wall or in an album and the sentries would be told to memorise the faces, as there were instances when superior officers wearing civilian clothes would walk into a police station, trying to catch the sentries and the junior officers off guard.

While guards in hospitals have palpitations about Mandaviya in disguise, his own security guards are also now more on alert around him!

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