September 10th is observed all over the world as a Suicide Prevention Day. Last week when this was being observed, the name of Siddhartha Auji, a Dalit man from Achham who worked in Bayalpata Hospital as a cleaning staff of an NGO Nyaya Health Nepal (NHN) came to my mind. The NHN is managing the hospital as a partner and is being funded by a US-based NGO Possible. This name and face has been etched in my mind since the news came out on Jestha 26th, 2077 B.S., that he had committed suicide because he had been sacked from his job at the hospital. He was among 33 staffers who had been given notice of termination of their job during the lockdown.
Poor management After learning about this incident, I had a series of telephonic conversations with several staffs of NHN, Bayalpata Hospital, and the local authorities in the ward where the hospital exists. The suicide of Sidhartha Auji is one of the many suicide cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, many opine that it wasn’t his mental inability to deal with the pandemic but the poor management strategy and lack of good governance within NHN that drove him to commit suicide. He came from the Dalit community with very low economic and financial status. Why was he laid off from the job after several years of working for the NGO at a very difficult time, when even the people who belonged to higher economic and social status were feeling the brunt of the pandemic? He must have belonged to one of the lowest paid staff categories and surely his pay couldn’t have hurt the NGO who have staff earning six-digit salary. SP Kalauni, Executive Director of NHN, opined that this was a very “unfortunate incident” but the termination of the staff had happened in all the working areas of the NGO, including Achham, Dolakha and Kathmandu. Kalauni added that a compensation package had been offered to Auji’s family and his wife was given a similar job. If they had sources to later compensate Auji’s family, couldn’t they have had the foresight to prevent his death? Mitthu Bhatta, chairperson of Ward No. 7, Ridikot, Sanfe Municipality where the Bayalpata Hospital is located, said that the hospital was serving not only the people of Achham but the entire Sudurpaschim State as well as people from other districts in the neighbouring states. As soon as they heard about the notice issued by NHN about the laying off of 33 staffers from the hospital on Jestha 8th, they took a delegation to meet the NHN management team operating the hospital, to request them to stop this and hold a dialogue with the local authorities in Achham. Unfortunately this did not happen, but Auji’s suicide shocked his village. He further informed that after the incident one more staff of NHN was arrested and kept in custody without following the normal procedure. The hospital authorities and the CDO office gave explanation that he was showing signs of stress and was therefore taken for questioning. Bhatta said that these were practices that did not support the sentiments of the local people facing stress while combatting a pandemic. Bhatta further informed that the board members of NHN never had meetings with the local authorities. He informed that when SP Kalaune visited Achham after the lockdown was lifted, the local authorities wanted to meet him but it was very difficult and there were no fruitful conclusions. As the importance of a hospital like Bayalpata is very much the requirement of the people there, he informed that all political parties in Achham came together to allocate funds from local authorities, after this incident. Sanfe Municipality has allocated Rs. 700,000, Chorpati Village Municipality has allocated Rs. 2,400,000, and the Sudurpaschim State has allocated Rs 70 million for the hospital. As this month is being celebrated as the month to prevent suicides, due notice must be given to Sidhartha Auji who was pushed into ending his life as a result of a bad decision by an organisation that has been paying exorbitant salaries to some of its staffs but decided to lay off a cleaner. The time has come for not only the Government of Nepal but also the NGO fraternity to look into what actually happened. The NGO movement has indeed succeeded in establishing human rights in the country. But the time has come to see whether the governance and management system within the NGOs is in conformity with its goals and guidelines.
Risk factors NHN is chaired by the well-respected Nepali industrialist Suraj Vaidya and celebrities from the public health and media sectors, among others. The International Association to prevent suicide states that suicide is the result of a convergence of risk factors including but not limited to genetic, psychological, social and cultural risk factors, sometimes combined with experiences of trauma and loss. Sidhartha Auji belonged to most of this risk category so how could the well-enlightened governance and management team of NHN not foresee this happening? It is also important that the funders supporting US-based NGO Possible, evaluate the situation well. It is important to continue the support to hospitals like Bayalpata which is probably serving some of the poorest population on earth, and not cut off resources during these difficult times. But proper action against a lack of judgment and infrastructure not serving the purpose of the cause needs to be taken.
(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)