No fitting farewell to the dead

LAST STAND: CONDITION OF CITY'S MORTUARIES MARRED BY LACK OF RESOURCES

At least the bodies don’t spill till outside now. But if you are visiting it for the first time, the sight will definitely shock you,” says Tara Chand, a post-mortem attendant at the Delhi-government-run Sabzi Mandi mortuary.

As mild curiosity drives you into visiting a cold room, you are taken by surprise – only two bodies neatly wrapped in white sheet and placed on stretchers.

“This cold room is not functioning. We separated these bodies from the others as they had started decomposing. You have to visit the other cold room to see what the situation is like. Currently, there are 24 bodies at the mortuary,” says a worker at the mortuary under Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital, requesting anonymity.

Another official warns, “Do not expect a visual of what is shown in channels like Discovery.”

The oldest mortuary in Delhi with crumbling infrastructure doesn’t only house a non-functional huge cold room. Outside the room lie cold storage chambers which “have never been used since first bought”, say officials. 

“The cost was huge. But it has not functioned for even one day. Even theoretically, these cold storage chambers are not fit for a mortuary with such a huge traffic of bodies. Regulating temperature in these is a task,” says a doctor at the mortuary.

According to Dr S K Sharma, Medical Superintendent, Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital, new cold storage chambers have been procured which will replace the defunct ones in a week.

As you walk into the lone functioning cold room, you have to balance your steps to not step on bodies lying on the floor – some uncovered. The privileged ones are covered and on stretchers. The stench is quite unbearable. At the end of the room, there is no space for movement even for the workers. Bodies lay stacked on top of one another there – the blood-smeared cotton print saree of a middle-aged woman, the thigh of a bearded man in blue shorts stiffened in the position at the time of his death, another at a distance without a shirt with his mouth half-open.

“There are not enough stretchers or sheets,” says the worker.
Most of the bodies received at the Sabzi Mandi mortuary are those of the unidentified – homeless, beggars and accident victims. Several bodies are here “Do you think the police care about these bodies? The bodies are brought in vans and just dumped here. There are times the bodies are not even brought wrapped in plastic sheets,” says a senior official at the mortuary.

“The police is supposed to depute a round-the-clock constable for the unclaimed bodies. But no such protocol is followed. Who is to take responsibility if bodies are stolen? The exchange of bodies at the mortuary is not uncommon either,” says the official.

Even identified bodies have nameplates and basic information like “age, sex” missing from their bodies.

An unclaimed body is supposed to be kept in the mortuary for at least 72 hours till the police advertises the death of the person in a newspaper under the heading of “Hue and Cry” for relatives to come forward and claim it.

According to officials at the site, even this protocol is not followed every time. The number of post-mortems conducted on those who “die of unnatural causes” varies on a given day from three to 10, say doctors. 

“All protocols are followed for the unidentified death. Moreover, there is no binding that a constable needs to be deputed at the site for unclaimed bodies. There are more number of bodies of accident victims than homeless these days,” says a senior police official of north Delhi.

The bodies of the homeless swell in number during peak summers and winters, say workers. There is also acute space crunch when the furnaces of the Sarai Kale Khan crematorium stop functioning. “Most of the bodies here are cremated at Sarai Kale Khan. The police keep the body dumped here with the cold room overflowing when the furnaces there do not work because of the huge traffic of bodies,” says another staff of the mortuary.

Citing a recent High Court order which mentions that the city does not respect the poor even in death, advocate Ashok Agarwal says, “Isn’t it violating human rights – denying the poor the basic right to dignity even after their death?”

But Sabzi Mandi mortuary is not the only state-run mortuary fighting infrastructural problems to accommodate the dead. 

“There is a need to upgrade the overall infrastructure across all mortuaries,” says Dr L C Gupta, in-charge of the Sabzi Mandi mortuary.

A digital survey with the Public Works Department (PWD) is already complete, says Dr Sharma. “We will upgrade the infrastructure by summer, the season when this mortuary receives the highest number of bodies,” he adds.

The Delhi government has recently formed a committee to review the existing problems of structural defects and shortage of resources at the state-run mortuaries.

“We have already convened two rounds of meetings with the heads of government hospitals to analyse the existing gap. The issues are now being identified. A report of the review of all the 10 mortuaries is awaited in the next three months,” says S B Shashank, Special Secretary, Health Department.

Admitting that “shortage of doctors and equipment” has been identified at some mortuaries, he added that expansion in infrastructure and resources will be carried out wherever necessary according to the findings of the committee. “This will also need detailed financial planning,” adds Shashank.

According to a senior official of Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital in East Delhi, there is an immediate need to develop a “slightly open area” for the bodies which start decomposing. “We have currently tried to delineate an area for the decomposing bodies but a slightly more open area is necessary. This has been communicated to the senior authorities and the sanctioning is in the process,” says the official.

Another official at the hospital said the current infrastructure is “not in tandem” with the load received by the hospital. “In cases, when an unclaimed body is kept beyond 72 hours, there is a space crunch,” says the official.

However, the official adds that mortuary workers face the wrath of the authorities here if bodies are found lying on the floor. “There are strict orders to follow the basic guidelines in treating the dead with dignity.”

Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, which has over 1,000 beds and is the largest hospital of East and North-East Delhi, has only one functional cold room which can ideally accommodate till 12 bodies.

Over-crowding of bodies is an unavoidable menace here too.  “For some time now, only one of the two cold rooms is functioning,” says a highly placed source in the mortuary.

An ex-employee of the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital mortuary said the scenario there was of the similar shade. “The problem is not specific to a mortuary. It is true that at Sabzi Mandi mortuary the picture comes across starkly but all the state-run mortuaries have similar problems. Exchange of bodies is not uncommon either.”

At Sabzi Mandi mortuary, there is more to worry about than the dead being treated with no or less dignity. The mortuary is also facing shortage of manpower, including doctors and subordinate staff and equipment.

“According to a High Court order there should be 25 doctors at the site. It is needless to say the number varies between five and six. The equipment procured for conducting autopsies are not even of sound quality,” says a source at the mortuary.

The workers handling the bodies, however, consider themselves fortunate to have enough number of gloves and masks. If the apathy of the state in upgrading facilities to treat the dead with dignity is appalling, then the condition under which the workers are carrying out their duties is no less shocking.

There is a shortage of something as basic as disinfectant at the mortuary under the Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital. Workers claimed they buy soap with their own money as there is not enough supply from the hospital.

“Even the germ filters outside the cold rooms are obsolete. The job needs to be done. The higher authorities do not care under what circumstances the workers are performing it. We are working under highly hazardous conditions. We have to handle several bodies with communicable diseases like tuberculosis, septicaemia without having enough protection. But who will take care of us?” says a worker.

However, Dr Sharma, Medical Superintendent of Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital, says, “The supply is requirement based. We have not been notified of any shortage in disinfectants.” 

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