The shortage of oxygen allegedly led to encephalitis, which is a sudden onset inflammation of the brain, following which the children died. Photograph: (Twitter)
11 children died on Saturday and until Friday the death toll stood at 60
Tragedy continued to descend upon Gorakhpur's Baba Raghav Das Medical College hospital, as another child succumbed to encephalitis on Sunday, taking the death toll over 70. 11 children died on Saturday and until Friday the death toll stood at 60.
Dr Kafeel Khan, a paediatrician and the head of the encephalitis ward at the hospital, was removed from his post two days after he saved hundreds of children by collecting oxygen cylinders from various nursing homes. He was removed for failing to take action on a letter by those in charge of oxygen supply, a media report stated citing government sources.
Hospital officials maintain that the deaths were caused by encephalitis and a brief disruption but not lack of oxygen.
Parents, however, have recounted panic and horror as their children suddenly began gasping for air amid an apparent drop in oxygen, and nurses handed out manual pumps to aid their breathing.
"I am a poor man who doesn't understand what happens here, but it was clear that day the oxygen wasn't going up. The doctors and other staff here were very worried," Ram Prasad, sitting by his two-year-old daughter's bedside, told AFP.
The Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government suspended the head of the state-run BRD Medical College, Rajeev Misra, late on Saturday and ordered an investigation into contracts to supply oxygen.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) said on Sunday that Rajiv Mishra's suspension was wrong because the tragedy was an administrative failure and everyone should be held accountable.
"The suspension of only the principal is completely wrong. It's an administrative failure. Everyone should be held accountable. If you're suspending him, then suspend the local administration too and ban the company," IMA president KK Aggarwal said.
Media reports said one reason for the deaths was a shortage of oxygen after a private supplier withdrew its equipment over unpaid hospital dues.
The issue of the unpaid bills for oxygen supply has become a flashpoint in relations between the hospital and the state government after the suspended hospital chief on Saturday accused state officials of ignoring his requests for money.
"I wrote at least three letters," Misra told television reporters on Saturday, adding that he had even flagged the issue in video conference discussions.
Hospital officials have, however, claimed that alternative supplies had been found, and blamed many of the deaths instead on the disease encephalitis and unspecified issues related to the delivery of the infants.
Victims' families have disputed this, describing the panic and chaos as patients began struggling from a sudden lack of oxygen.
"As soon as we reached the hospital, we were handed a small pump and told to keep pumping. I did so for over three-and-a-half hours," one victim`s father, Shailendra Gupta, was quoted by Sunday's Indian Express as saying.
"The next day, we were informed that he was dead."
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath said on Sunday that a probe had been ordered into the death and "if anyone's negligence caused the death of a person in any part of Uttar Pradesh, he won't be spared."
Adityanath, who visited the hospital on Sunday, was accompanied by union health minister JP Nadda.
"Nobody can be more sensitive towards those children than me," the Uttar Pradesh chief minister said.
"Those whose sensitivity has died are now trying to add salt to the wound by raising the sensitive issue unnecessarily," he added.
Adityanath had said on Saturday that "he has asked a team of top ministers to determine if the death of the children was actually due to a disruption in oxygen supply at the hospital and assured to "not spare anyone found guilty".
He also said, "We have suspended the principal of the BRD Medical College and taking him guilty for his actions and an investigation on him has already been ordered and is underway. Those found guilty won't be spared."
Opposition parties have clamoured for the resignation of Yogi Adityanath and the state health minister. "This government is a murderer," said Raj Babbar, head of the opposition Congress party in Uttar Pradesh.
Responding to the suspension of Medical College Principal, senior Congress Party leader and former health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad branded the move as 'eyewash', and demanded that an all-party delegation should look into the matter.
"The administration was notified of the lack of oxygen. Local media reports also hinted at the possibility of a large tragedy in the hospital. It is shocking that nothing was done about it. Suspending the Principal after this and announcing an inquiry into the matter is just an eyewash. There should be an all-party probe into this; the matter should not be submerged at any cost," said Azad, while addressing a press conference here.
Further, Azad urged the state health minister Siddharth Nath Singh to submit his resignation immediately.
According to data procured from the BRD hospital, in five days - from August 7 to August 11, a total of 60 deaths occurred in the hospital.
The procured data also shows the number of oxygen cylinders sent for refilling each day, showing a clear shortage of liquid oxygen in the hospital.
The Uttar Pradesh health minister has defended the government's role, saying no issue of unpaid bills had been brought to its attention and all requests for funds were paid promptly.
Gorakhpur is Adityanath's political base, which elected him to parliament five times before he was made Uttar Pradesh chief minister by Narendra Modi after the BJP government's landslide BJP election victory in March.
Gorakhpur's health facilities are seen as deficient, Reuters reported citing a study of government data by nonprofit body Brookings India that says the district has a 26 per cent shortage of primary health centres.
Encephalitis outbreaks kill hundreds in India every year, especially during the monsoon season.
Public health accounts for only one per cent of India's GDP, which is among the world's lowest.
In recent years, Modi's government has increased health spending and vowed to make healthcare more affordable.