A blue trunk lies atop a lone shelf in a women’s night shelter under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), adjacent to the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in central Delhi. Till six months ago, Kajal was one among 35 women who jostled for space inside this porta cabin structure. “She was one of the only women here who had a fulltime job,” says Pinki, who refers to Kajal as “Bhabhi”. Since Kajal’s death in October, Pinki has not returned to the night shelter.
Sarita Devi, the caretaker of the shelter, says Kajal was a “chronic alcoholic”. “In the first week of October, her condition became very bad. We had to send her to RML hospital,” she recalls. Kajal passed away after a week of treatment, residents say. Women at the shelter learnt later that the hospital had registered her as an “unidentified” patient. Her body was in the mortuary by the time they arrived.
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“We told them she had lived with us for years. She was from Seemapuri and after her husband died, she had to leave home,” said Tarla, another resident. The women were asked to produce some identity proof of Kajal. “Police contacted the shelter but we did not have any identity proof,” recalls Sarita, the caretaker.
“Police refused to accept names or addresses furnished by friends, or even shelter home records of poor people who die without leaving behind a proof of identity. This is because migrants often assume different names and addresses, for safety and mobility, navigating the city in search of work or a home,” says Sunil Kumar Alkedia, head of Centre for Holistic Development, an NGO that works with homeless persons.
“When they die, their real addresses and names are buried with them forever. Police mark them unidentified and give them a funeral,” says Alkedia. He pegs the number of homeless in Delhi at around 1,80,000 while government records show around 47,000.
According to Dr Sudhir Gupta, head of forensic medicine at AIIMS, “Only unidentified bodies brought by police in medico-legal cases are brought to hospital-based mortuaries. They are kept for 72 hours after autopsy in case someone wants to claim them.” Gupta said bodies are handed over to police after autopsy and will be kept in the central mortuary.
In a majority of the cases of unidentified bodies brought to AIIMS between 2006 and 2012, the deaths were due to natural causes. Over 1,300 unclaimed bodies were brought to the hospital during that period. This is 11 per cent of the total bodies brought to AIIMS, as per a study published by the hospital on the medico-legal problem of unclaimed bodies.
Like Kajal, migrants dominate the community of the unclaimed dead in Delhi. Police find it arduous to trace places of domicile and contact families. If they do get through to families, train journeys to Delhi, identification and handing over of the body takes time. Names of most of the urban poor never feature in government databases and are eventually marked unidentified.
Pinki and a few female residents asked the authorities to handover Kajal’s body to them. “I wanted to cremate her… We also went to the police… No one listened… Everyone says we wanted to rob her belongings,” she says.
Kajal’s body was kept at the hospital mortuary for a week following which she was cremated by police personnel. ”They never came back for the trunk. We do not know what to do with this now,” says Sarita.