SRINAGAR: The Jammu and Kashmir government has unceremoniously removed the head of the Valley’s top healthcare facility, Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr AG Ahanger, after a sting caught senior doctors working at the institute doing private practice, despite an official ban.

Dr Ahanger, a top cardiothoracic surgeon who previously headed North Eastern Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, was removed without any specific reason from the post of the institute while three doctors including Dean of SKIMS, Dr Altaf Kirmani were placed under suspension.

“Dr Pawan Kotwal IAS, Principal Secretary to the government health and medical education department shall discharge the functions of the Director Sher-e- Kashmir Institute of medical sciences, in addition to his own duties till further orders,” an order issued by the state’s General Administration Department, said on Saturday.

The swift action followed a sting, broadcast by a New Delhi-based TV channel, showing the three doctors providing consultations to patients, purportedly at private clinics in Srinagar, a practice that has been banned by the state government which gives 'non-practising allowance' specifically to SKIMS doctors in addition to their monthly salaries.

However, the move evoked a strong reaction on social media, raising questions of 'selective justice' and the lack of accountability within other government departments which, some years back, made J&K the second most corrupt state in a Transparency International survey, next only to Bihar.

The issue of private practice by doctors has been at the heart of an old, raging debate on the state of healthcare in Kashmir where patients often rely on private consultations to avoid the hassles of government run hospitals where access to known faces of healthcare is limited and often granted at the behest of political clout.

“Here, it can take you weeks to get an appointment with a head of department or a consultant because you have to follow the procedure. Now if the same doctor is available at his clinic every morning, a patient will obviously prefer an appointment there. It will save time and sometimes life also,” said Mubashir Wani, who works at the institute as a lab technician.

The SKIMS has often been at the center of controversies in healthcare sector of Kashmir. Doctors at the institute have faced allegations of remaining absent from duties to focus on their private ventures. To discourage doctors from private practice, the SKIMS also offered a 'non-practising allowance' of Rs 15,000 to them, in addition to their salaries.

“I see 20 to 30 patients in morning and I easily make that money in a day. I am legally bound by office timings and the government has resources to verify my punctuality. But if I work hard, why should the government become a hindrance in my financial growth?” a top neurosurgeon at SKIMS who offers private consultation at a clinic in uptown Srinagar, said.

While many people have appreciated the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti for acting swiftly by removing or suspending the top four doctors of SKIMS, others feel that it will end up spreading fear among other doctors which may only add to the already overburdened footfall of patients at the institute.

“It will be better for the government to stop giving 'non-practising allowances' to SKIMS doctors, who are the most qualified and experienced in their fields. Making private practice illegal will only burden the institute and may force patients to go outside the state for availing proper treatment, many of whom may not be able to afford it,” Dr Abid Nabi, who works at an associated facility of SMHS hospital, said.