In a politically conscious, socially progressive State like Kerala where the infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world the deaths of 38 new-borns over the past four months from a hospital-acquired infection have come as a nasty shock. All the deaths were in the neonatology unit of the Sree Avittom Tirunal Hospital, a government-run institution in the State capital, Thiruvananthapuram. This poorly equipped hospital is inadequately staffed and almost always overflowing with patients; it averages 60 deliveries a day, but does not have more than two nurses in a shift. But nothing can explain the callousness with which the hospital managers dealt with the deaths of infants one after another from a bacterial infection contracted from within the neonatology unit. Admittedly, the government machinery was slow to wake up to the serial deaths. Hospital Superintendent K. Rajmohan was sacked on the charge that he failed to report the deaths and their cause to the higher authorities. Health Minister P.K. Sreemathy, who is now under pressure to step down, insists she was kept in the dark about the deaths. As early as January, three of the 14 cases of infant mortality involved babies who were otherwise healthy and of normal weight. In February, the figure climbed to five of 28 and in March to 14 of 23. Only in April, when 16 of the 36 deaths were found to be on account of hospital-acquired infection, did the issue get adequate attention. A major part of the last four months was lost in piecemeal measures aimed at damage control. Efforts at total sterilisation of the hospital were not undertaken until the cause of infant deaths became public knowledge.

However, the order of a local court asking the police to register a case against the Minister on the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder is another instance of misplaced judicial activism. The Minister has been named as the seventh accused in the case filed on the orders of Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate S. Gopalakrishnan. Others named as accused include doctors, nursing superintendents, and a labour room cleaner. Ministers and administrators must certainly be held accountable but little is achieved by pinning over-the-top charges against them before the investigation is complete. On the same principle, will a Railway Minister be prosecuted for culpable homicide not amounting to murder when there is a train accident causing multiple deaths? Or a Prime Minister or Defence Minister for a military operation gone wrong? Or a Chief Minister or Home Minister for fake encounter killings by the police? What is needed is exemplary action that addresses the issues at stake, including issues of legal culpability not a witch-hunt.