Unclaimed bodies in Delhi: Nameless and faceless

With protocol limiting time to trace families or loved ones, and valid identification difficult to come by, authorities are left with hard choices.

Written by Pritha Chatterjee | New Delhi | Published: April 25, 2016 3:25:17 am
Grieving  Ravinder Pal and     missing his  brother  Ajeet Singh who died in a  Road accident. Express photo by Renuka Puri. Ravinder Pal spent a month looking for his brother, Ajeet Singh, (below) who lay in Safdarjung Hospital. Police managed to trace the family after his death. (Express photo by Renuka Puri)

The busy stretch of road under the Shadipur Metro line falls under the jurisdiction of Ranjeet Nagar police station. However, when 55-year-old Ajeet Singh was hit by a speeding vehicle two years ago, his family did not hear a word about the accident. Neither did officers at Patel Nagar police station, located on the other flank of the road, where the family lodged a missing persons complaint.

A month later, Singh died in a city hospital even as his family searched frantically for him all across Delhi and Punjab. His family was finally traced in time before police cremated him along with many other “unidentified” and unclaimed bodies lying in morgues in the city.

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On the directions of the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal (MACT) that heard Singh’s case this year, the Delhi government’s health department and the Union Ministry of Health directed hospitals to make public photographs of unidentified road accident victims.

On most Sundays, Ajeet would go to the Bangla Sahib gurdwara where he volunteered at the langar. He would leave home early and return by 4.30 pm. On November 20, 2014 he left for the gurdwara as usual. But he never returned home.

Ajeet worked at Lal Mandir in Baljeet Nagar, a bustling colony in west Delhi. He did odd jobs for a living — sweeping the temple courtyard, serving food at the community langar or helping in the kitchen when he was required. He had been living with his younger brother, Ravinder Pal, and his family in the colony since 1977. The brothers ran a book-binding business which frittered away after Pal suffered two heart attacks in 2012 and 2013. Now, Pal’s son, Aman Arora, works as a driver to support the family.

On the day he went “missing”, his family thought he had gone to Lal Mandir — situated barely 100 m from their house — as he did on some occasions. His family could not call Ajeet as he didn’t own a phone. When he did not return the next day, a worried Ravinder and his son went to inquire at the temple first. When they learnt Singh had never come there the previous day, they rushed to Patel Nagar police station.

Ravinder says, “I told them my brother had been missing since the previous day and we had no way of contacting him. They asked his age and his daily routine. Police then told us to wait a day or two and speak to our relatives.”

picture of   Ajeet Singh who died in a  Road accident. Express photo by Renuka Puri. Picture of Ajeet Singh who died in a Road accident. Express photo by Renuka Puri.

Ravinder and Aman then went around the neighbourhood, speaking to Ajeet’s friends and calling their relatives. Ajeet was unmarried. Ravinder was the youngest of five brothers and Ajeet the second eldest. “We were not in touch with our other brothers. I tried calling them, but could not get through. They had changed numbers. So the same day, I went to Ludhiana and Amritsar to meet them,” he recalls.

Aman says he and his father went around the two towns over the next few days, going from one relative’s house to the next. While father and son were undertaking this search, an “unidentified” patient who sustained serious injuries in a road traffic accident near Shadipur Metro station was brought to Safdarjung Hospital. Here, he identified himself as Ranjit Singh, and said he lived in Baljeet Nagar near Lal Mandir.

“The patient had head injuries and multiple fractures. He was referred from Acharya Bhikshu Hospital,” said a doctor at Safdarjung. Only after his death during treatment two weeks later, did police come to know the man was Ravinder’s brother.

Aman, who has spent the last two years in court hearings and police stations, learnt that the accident occurred barely 200 m from their home. “He was crossing the road when a vehicle hit him and sped away. A passerby called the police. An ambulance took him to Acharya Bhikshu hospital,” he says.

Since the accident occurred while he was crossing the road, the case fell under the jurisdiction of Ranjeet Nagar police station, which is on the road opposite to Patel Nagar police station where his family was making inquiries.

Doctors and police authorities said Singh could not give his correct name because of his head injuries. Mansi, his niece, says, “The address he gave was of a flat where we stayed earlier, but it was barely a few houses away from where we were living. According to the records, he identified Lal Mandir in Baljeet Nagar and said he lived nearby. He could not have given a better landmark, because everyone in and around the temple knew him… That was how they could identify us after his death. So why could police not have taken this basic effort while he was still alive?”

When their inquiries in Punjab bore no fruit, Ravinder and Aman returned to Patel Nagar police station. “Police did not even register a missing person complaint despite our requests. They told us such an old man would not go anywhere… he would come back and we should wait. I had never felt more helpless in my life,” says Ravinder says, his eyes welling up with tears.

For days, he says he and Aman took turns going to Gurdwara Bangla Sahib and markets in west Delhi that Ajeet used to visit to look for him. On December 13, Aman got a call from his employer Baljeet Singh, who runs a property shop in the areas. “Some police officers came with a photograph of my uncle’s body and were making inquiries around Lal Mandir. They came to Baljeetji’s shop and he identified Ajeet,” says Aman.

The family was called to Deen Dayal Upadhyay hospital where Ajeet’s body had been brought for an autopsy. “I could not believe what they told us. While we were looking for him all over the city and in Punjab, he had been moved between hospitals. He was being treated with no one from the family by his side. We cannot imagine how abandoned he must have felt… he must have thought we gave him up for dead,” says Ravinder.

The FIR in the case was registered on December 13. Nearly two years later, the MACT court hearing Pal’s case directed the Delhi government to ensure photographs of all unidentified patients undergoing treatment or those who die during treatment are put up on their respective websites.

The government’s health department, in turn, issued directions to its hospitals to put up pictures of all unidentified accident victims on its website last month. However, the order is yet to to be implemented. So far, the only pictures of unidentified victims being posted are on police’s ZIPNET (Zonal Integrated Police Network) site.

The court has also directed the DCP of the district to conduct a departmental inquiry into what led to the delay in identifying Ajeet. The court has also directed police to ensure pictures of unidentified victims are also put up on ZIPNET. DCP (Central) Paramaditya says, “I am aware of the court order. We are working on it. We are uploading all photographs of unidentified bodies on ZIPNET.”

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