Early evening, two vans drive up to the gate of Sabzi Mandi mortuary, the city’s oldest government facility to house bodies. A Delhi police hearse brings the body of an unidentified man. The other body is of a man who died under suspicious circumstances, a police constable from Timarpur whispers. The mortuary staff bring out the bodies, place them on stretchers and wheel them in.
The bodies will be in the company of 60 more in a space earmarked for 30. The overcrowding is not new for the staff, who watch a sadhu wind his way out and a few young boys come in with water and tea for them.
A section of the mortuary, bright with white lights, takes in both the bodies. A strong stench hangs about the hall and the adjacent post-mortem room. One of the two cold storages is opened and a blast of putrid odour overwhelms the senses.
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Inside the cold storage are more than 20 bodies, a few of women. A few lie on stretchers and a few on floors. Dignity of the dead is often talked about among staffers, but, they say, there is little they can do. They too are looking for dignity, “of the living”.
“There is no space. What are we supposed to do? The problem is most of these bodies are lawaris (unidentified). Police are supposed to clear the bodies within 72 hours if the bodies are unclaimed. But we have some bodies here for the last 60 days or more,” one of the morgue attendants says.
Dr L C Gupta, Sabzi Mandi mortuary in-charge, says, “Bodies from 17 police station areas come in here. The numbers go up during peak winters and summers when the poor and homeless succumb to the fury of inclement weather. After the High Court took note, secretary-level meeting with the Delhi government has resulted in sanctioning of Rs 60 crore for the renovation of the mortuary. All the staff quarters and the rear portion of the mortuary will be broken down to accommodate new cold storages, but this work will take a few years.”
The Sabzi Mandi mortuary was for long the only one in the city. According to insiders, staff shortage is acute at the mortuary, and guards, sweepers and post-mortem attendants are overworked.
A junior assistant says, “We have a sanctioned strength of seven doctors for post-mortem, but are working with only three because we are never requisitioned more. Many times, bodies are stacked up because the autopsies are not completed and doctors are overworked. We have a shortage of supplies as essential as chemicals used for sanitising and cleaning floors. We get the floors washed with water only.”
The four dissection tables have rusted bearings, and the post-mortems are
conducted on these simultaneously, in the same room, on days when there is more work than usual.
The air conditioners in the halls seem ineffective. The visitors’ room where the kin of the dead wait has no air-conditioning or coolers. “We removed the desert coolers because of the dengue crisis,” says an attendant.
In the mortuary at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, there is no visitors’ room. The office where doctors and police meet is adjacent to the cold storage.
“The risk of infections, the odour, and no air-conditioning make it terribly difficult for us to work here. We have no masks or risk allowance and our wages are the same as a lab assistant,” says a post-mortem assistant.
After the High Court order, the Public Works Department (PWD) began building a section for a cold storage and another for putrefying, unclaimed bodies, according to the chief engineer and morgue attendants.
At the morgue in Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, workers say there have been no plastic bags for bodies for the last two months, despite writing to the hospital
“We have to write to the hospital authorities or the PWD for every small thing,
even a broken door latch or a bulb. It takes months to get cleared and passed. And if we replace broken articles on our own, we are rebuked by seniors for taking the step independently. Cupboards, doors, air conditioners and coolers are all broken and need repairs. Such is the condition we work in,” says a worker.
An attendant says, “Of bodies being left for days by police, the sad fact is that police and we wait for the kin of the dead, especially if they are from other states such as Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The time taken for posts to reach the families and them coming to Delhi to claim the bodies almost always exceeds three days. Rules are made in offices, without a reality check on the ground.”
After the High Court’s remarks, construction work has started in all morgues.
After the amicus curiae’s report, officials at the Sabzi Mandi morgue say in the next six months the four dissection tables and all rusted tools will be replaced, and essential supplies like white plastic bags for covering bodies replenished on an urgent basis.
Mortuary staff say the urgency is welcome. “This is perhaps the first time a minister came down to the mortuary to take stock,” an attendant says, referring to Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain’s visit on September 12.
High court’s remarks and what triggered them
‘What the people have to endure” is “disgusting”, and the apathy and the situation makes one “want to resign and run away.”
* After hearing that “many” employees in the main mortuary attached to Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital were “dying before their retirement age” due to exposure to various infections.
‘Is there any SOP or screening process?”… “You think the mortuary belongs to dead people so everything there should be dead? The people working there are also dying.”
* The High Court bench asked the government to come up with a screening process to ensure mortuary employees are not exposed to bodies with communicable diseases.
* After taking note of photographs (one of them above) of old and rusted tools being used to conduct post-mortems at Sabzi Mandi mortuary.