Indian forensics: Raising a stink

The dead are denied dignity

geetanjali

Geetanjali Minhas | July 17, 2014 | Mumbai



Recalling a personal incident in 2001 after his father-in-law died in a road accident in Mumbai, oncologist Dr Nagaraj Huilgol says the body was brought to the JJ Hospital at 11 pm and the autopsy was conducted the next afternoon (those days post-mortems were not conducted at night) – but only after repeated calls from higher-ups. He saw a drunken ward boy bringing in four bodies on top of each other on a stretcher. His father-in-law’s head was dangling. A body fell down when it was being taken out. After the autopsy, the ward boy told him he would have to pay for stitching the body back, and the charges vary depending on the thread used, cotton or silk. “The system needs an overhaul,” says Huilgol. “Technology used is ancient. Employees are underpaid and overworked, budgets are limited. No appropriate compensations are provided to employees, including doctors. There are no incentives like extra pay (for overtime) or days off (for working on holidays),” he adds.

Despite the population growth, healthcare systems continue to be governed by outdated laws and policies. The health ministry in its 2012 ‘revised guidelines for district hospitals’ has classified post-mortem among ‘ancillary and support services’, and not as an emergency, essential service. (Also read: Sunanda autopsy affidavit reveals plight of Indian forensics)

A forensic scientist, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “We have to keep making rounds for funds. Why? Because priorities are different. When qualified persons are available, why can they not be employed and quality services given at post-mortem centres? Eight percent sanctioned posts in government hospitals are lying vacant. As a result, the staff is overburdened.”

The scientist also blames police for some of the problems. He says post-mortem is often delayed because police officers take time in handing over the papers.

Even cases of unclaimed bodies are increasing – on an average seven to 10 bodies are brought from Mumbai railway tracks every day – in addition to cases of suicide, murders, and so on. Though the law requires unidentified bodies to be disposed of within seven days, they pile up in mortuaries which then require more resources to preserve them longer. (Also read: Forensics is nobody’s baby)

On top of that, there are bodies coming in from nearby places: for example, Mumbai’s neighbouring towns like Thane and Kalyan send in unclaimed bodies to big hospitals like the JJ Hospital because they do not have the facilities. Unnecessary referrals too increase the work burden.

“I have seen insects crawling on bodies at mortuaries without air conditioners. And they conduct autopsy and videography under 60-watt bulbs!” says a senior Maharashtra police officer who did not wish to be quoted.

Former CBI director Dr Joginder Singh says, “Ninety percent post mortems are done by ward boys. There is nothing like governance or accountability and violators are not penalised. How relevant are the laws made in 1885? There must be sunset laws that automatically lapse after 10-15 years.”

Criminal advocate Naveen Chomal believes the government spending on forensics in India is very low. “Freezers to preserve bodies are available in very few mortuaries and preference is given to those with money or influence. So, bodies are kept outside and in crucial cases evidence is lost,” he says. Chumal adds there is heavy stink at mortuaries due to unhygienic conditions, and therefore the doctor would stand at the door with handkerchief pressed to his nose, while the ward boy conducts post-mortem and gives him the findings.

Advocate Farhana Shah, who represented the accused in the 1993 bomb blast case as well as Ajmal Kasab, says, “Knowledge of evidence value, that is, what and how evidence has to be preserved, is not understood in India.  Though technology has improved, this indifference to crucial evidence has to change.”

(The story appeared in the July 16-31 issue of the magazine)

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