Unclaimed bodies in Delhi: Acknowledged by state only in death, as ‘lawaris’

Bodies from 17 police station areas are sent in to the Sabzi Mandi mortuary. The numbers peak in winters and summers, when the poor and the homeless succumb to the fury of the elements.

Written by Sarah Hafeez | New Delhi | Updated: April 25, 2016 3:50 am
Officials at Sabzi Mandi mortuary say they have space for around 40 bodies but there are days when the count goes up to 60. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna Officials at Sabzi Mandi mortuary say they have space for around 40 bodies but there are days when the count goes up to 60. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

The capital’s mortuaries teem with unclaimed bodies shorn of their “identity” in a lonely plebeian death. An average of nine unidentified bodies come into the morgues every day. Officials at government mortuaries consider cases like those of Ajeet Singh a lucky and rare happenstance.

“We have space for around 40 bodies. But there are days when the count goes up to 60. In March last year, we had 92 bodies on a single day, the highest in years. Lack of space for bodies, overworked doctors, mortuary staffers, and police, and the drudgery of burdensome routine are the reasons for the way things function here,” says an official at the Sabzi Mandi mortuary, the largest and oldest in Delhi.

Bodies from 17 police station areas are sent in to the Sabzi Mandi mortuary. The numbers peak in winters and summers, when the poor and the homeless succumb to the fury of the elements.

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It took rat bites on the corpse of a Tihar Jail official last September to turn the state’s attention on the wretched condition of mortuaries in the capital and the haunting absence of treating the dead with dignity.

“(Delhi) High Court orders last year to upgrade the mortuary helped. Funds to the tune of Rs 60 crore have been sanctioned and a blast freezer room with a capacity for 100 bodies is being built so that we do not have to pile bodies on the floor or on one another. We have got new equipment for post-mortems, and soap and phenyl have been provided to workers,” says the official.

A major reason for the overcrowding is unclaimed bodies waiting to be cleared by police. According to NHRC guidelines, an unidentified body is supposed to be stored in a mortuary for up to 72 hours or three days after doctors declare a person dead.

Yet bodies sometimes lie forgotten in morgues for 80 days or more, waiting for police to get a word from families or a look of recognition from somebody who knew them in this megapolis.

“Three days is little time. By the time we upload the photo of an unidentified body on ZIPNET and begin searching for families, three days are up. Rarely does someone respond in the initial three days. If traced, many times, families refuse to reclaim their dead,” says an officer.

The decomposing bodies inside the mortuary severely infect the living with death, say insiders. Puroshottam, a morgue assistant in-charge at Sabzi Mandi, says, “Over the last decade, as many as 12 staffers passed away even before they reached their age of retirement. The only two who retired were Iqbal and Kripal, but they too died about six months after retiring. They were ill, like all of us here.”

Raju (49) and other morgue assistants like him have been carrying and wheeling in bodies to the cold storage or out of it, assisting in autopsies and cleaning up for years now. Raju suffers from an incurable infection in the brain and also has recurring bouts of TB, as he soldiers on at Sabzi Mandi mortuary.

“I get no allowance. Many years ago, staffers were paid a small allowance for each postmortem and regularly medically examined and vaccinated. We are not sent for regular check-ups,” says Raju.

Though the high court order ensured the mortuary is well-stocked with essential goods such as soap, masks, sanitised clothes, and phenyl, bodies brought in for autopsies are still not tested for diseases or infections.

A mortuary in-charge says, “Bodies kept in the morgue for so many days decompose. They are the main source of bacterial and viral infections in staffers here. And if a staffer suffers a small cut during post-mortems… contracting HIV infection and TB is common.”

Among the unclaimed dead in Delhi, migrants abound. Police find it particularly difficult to locate their families. If they do get through to families, train journeys to Delhi, identification and handing over of the body takes a number of days.

Names of most of the urban poor, putting up at nebulous addresses like street corners, mandir chaukhats, and masjid aangans, which never feature in government databases, eventually go down the annals of Delhi’s unidentified death.

Numerous homeless persons who remain on the peripheral blind spot of the state machinery while they live, are acknowledged by the state only in death — as “lawaris” or unclaimed.

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