INSIDE the St George Hospital’s mortuary, over five months after his death, Ambaji More’s body has begun to decompose even at 7 degree Celsius. Its skin peeling, the body is wrapped in a white shroud and is stacked on another corpse on a stretcher.
Relatives haven’t come up to claim More’s body since his death on January 18, allowing it to gradually decay. The mortuary, with a capacity of six, was storing 10 bodies at the end of March. One body had to be folded in half and placed near the door due to the lack of space. Crumbs of thermocol left by rats surrounded the bodies.
The condition of other mortuaries in the city is similar, if not worse. All of them struggle with space shortage, the problem sharpening in the monsoon when accident-related deaths peak.
Of the city’s 10 post-mortem centres, the one at Siddharth hospital opened a few months ago. The others, at Rajawadi, Bhagwati, R N Cooper, JJ, Sion, KEM, Nair, and Gokuldas Tejpal (GT) hospitals, have not changed much over the years.
At St George Hospital, three out of 10 bodies stored on March 29 were of tuberculosis patients, posing a risk of infection to workers there. The same day, Ram Vishkarma (50) visited the centre to identify the body of his 23-year-old son Golu. Golu had died while crossing railway tracks at Masjid Bunder. “His body was piled up on another body. It smelled bad,” Vishkarma says, breaking down. Golu, a labourer in Mumbai, had broken his hip and leg and suffered a skull injury.
Vishkarma says the condition in which his son’s body was stored made him cry.
As per norms, a body may be stored for a maximum of seven days at any morgue, following which police have to take it over. In Mumbai mortuaries, unclaimed bodies easily remain for more than that. For instance, the body of Arvind Shimpi, who died in police custody on March 11, continues to lie at the JJ morgue as his family has refused to accept it until investigations are complete. Gangster Sandeep Gadoli’s body too lies here, after he was shot by Harayana cops in February this year.
Says Harish Pathak, forensic department head at KEM hospital, “The police is already burdened with so many duties, they do not find time to claim unidentified bodies from the mortuary. Sometimes, bodies are stored at the morgue for months.”
Accepted norms require a temperature of 2 to 4 degree Celsius for storing bodies for a few weeks. For preserving bodies longer, a temperature of -5 to -13 degree Celsius is required, to keep the body frozen and stop decomposition. At the St George morgue, however, a temperature as high as 7 degree Celsius has allowed a quicker decomposition of More’s body. In other morgues, a visit by The Indian Express found average temperatures of 2 degree Celsius even for bodies that had to be stored for long periods.
The state of infrastructure and technology is no better in autopsy rooms either. “The technique of autopsy has not improved in the past 50 years,” says Pathak.
He adds that an autopsy room should ideally have stainless steel tables that can be wiped clean, a faucet, a section to keep tools and a separate section to handle biomedical waste. “Blood and tissue samples from the body should ideally not be washed away in the drain without being treated,” he says. None of Mumbai’s 10 post-mortem centres has such a facility.
At Gokuldas Tejpal, JJ, St George, KEM and Rajawadi, the autopsy is generally conducted on marble platforms that can absorb blood, thus remaining stained and posing a risk of infection. While air-conditioning and ventilation is necessary in the autopsy room, none of Mumbai’s centres has them.
The St George post-mortem centre is still more decrepit. The one-room autopsy facility has no waiting area. The marble is chipped, there is poor lighting and no ventilation. A wall separates the drainage line running outside on P D’Mello Road from the one running parallely inside. Rats enter from the drains into the room where the autopsy is conducted. There is no bathroom for staffers, they relieve themselves in the same open outlet where the rats scurry. The centre has been renovated recently, but except for a new coat of paint and plaster, nothing has changed.
Elsewhere in the state too, the condition is similar. Advocate Smita Singalkar first visited a mortuary when her husband’s uncle passed away in a road accident in 2013. Grappling with acute staff crunch, the mortuary at Yashwantrao Chavan Medical College, Yavatmal, asked the relatives to undress the body themselves for gender identification. They also had to lift the body and place it in the cold storage drawer. “There were rats there,” Singalkar says,”but no inquiry desk or complaint box.”
Singalkar now represents NGO Sahyog Trust’s public interest litigation (PIL) that has demanded proper guidelines for the operation of morgues. The PIL has alleged that three bodies had been disfigured in a week by rats at the Meyo General Hospital morgue in Nagpur. Following the PIL, the Nagpur HC appointed a three-member forensic team to draw guidelines for post-mortem centres. The team of Dr Manish Shrigiriwar, Dr Pradeep Dixit and Dr Sailesh Mohite submitted the guidelines in January 2015. They are yet to be implemented.
Mohite, head of forensics at Mumbai’s Nair Hospital, says, “We visited the state-of-the-art autopsy centre at Goa Medical College in Bambolim. While an exact model will be too expensive to replicate, there could be improvements to centres in Maharashtra, such as availability of equipment and better facility for mortuary workers.”
A state-of-the-art centre will cost over Rs 10 crore for construction, while a basic centre costs more than Rs 2 crore. Maintaining a post-mortem centre, especially its cold storage morgue, is expensive with the cost ranging in lakhs.
Apart from upgradation, more centres need to be set up, for a more equal distribution of bodies. While GT and St George hospitals — covering a jurisdiction of two police stations each — receive about two bodies for autopsies every day, Sion and Rajawadi centres are burdened with over 15 bodies per day, with jurisdiction of 15 and 24 police stations respectively. The suburbs have four post-mortem centres, whereas south Mumbai alone has six.
According to Mohite, when police inquests replaced the coroner’s court in 1999, a proposal was floated for 16 post-mortem centres, with equally distributed police stations.
But while the number of police stations has rapidly escalated since, the count of post-mortem centres rose by six in two decades.
In western counties, technology such as UV blacklights are used for crime scenes and post mortems to look for blood traces, saliva, subcutaneous bruising and other evidence. In Mumbai, keeping rats away from bodies is the bigger challenge.
(Tomorrow: dearth in forensic experts, mortuary workers forced to perform autopsy)