Sixty-one infants have died at an Indian children's hospital in the past two weeks, but a senior official at the hospital in eastern Odisha state insists that the deaths were not due to the negligence of the medics.

The recent spike in deaths at the hospital in Cuttack city has sparked protests, forcing the state government to launch an investigation.

About 6,000 children have died at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Post Graduate Institute of Paediatrics, popularly known as Shishu Bhavan, in the past five years, and records show that the death toll has been  rising steadily over the years .

Niranjan Mohanty, a senior professor-cum-superintendent at the hospital, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that the hospital was overburdened, adding that about 60 doctors handled 45-50 critically ill children and 450-500 outpatients daily.

He said that most of the infants who died were born prematurely and had low birth weight. Septicaemia or pneumonia were the main causes of the deaths while many children died because of encephalitis, he added.

'Overcrowded hospital'

Mohanty stressed that parents bringing their children, many from the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and West Bengal, needed to be made aware of preventive measures in order to check the high mortality rate.

Preterm baby deaths in India may be preventable

He said that the deaths were not abnormal, adding that the "overcrowded hospital" has seen a steady death toll throughout the year.

The state health minister, however, has accused the hospital of negligence.

A criminal probe was under way into the conduct of three staff at the Shishu Bhavan, state health minister Atanu S Nayak told Reuters. Five workers have been suspended.

"A preliminary inquiry found [the staff] had neglected their duty that contributed to the deaths," Nayak said, without elaborating on the causes of death.

Underfunded health system

The deaths highlight the challenges faced in India's underfunded public health system, where successive governments have failed to address the acute shortage of staff and clinics.

Those problems are compounded by the stark poverty and poor sanitary conditions in many villages.

India's federal government slashed its health budget by nearly 20 percent after the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power last May.

Asia's third-largest economy spends about 1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on public health, among the lowest in the world. Its neighbour China spends 3 percent on health while the US' health budget is 8.3 percent of the GDP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP has staged protests outside several government hospitals across Odisha, waving flags and shouting slogans against state government officials.

"Infants have died but the chief minister has yet to visit the hospital," said Samir Mohanty, one of the BJP protesters.

Last year, at least 13 women died after being sterilized in central India. In 2013, more than one million children died before the age of five and 50,000 maternal deaths were recorded.

A UNICEF report however, says that India has made impressive gains in child survival, but it needed to do more.

Saif Khalid contributed to this report from Doha.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies