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AIDS patient may have been cremated alive: NCW

By Our Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI JULY 17. The National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson, Poornima Advani told reporters here today that the 32-year-old HIV/AIDS patient, Poonamma — who died under mysterious circumstances at Kuppam village of Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh on July 3 — could have been cremated alive by her family.

The NCW team, which visited the village earlier this week reached this conclusion after it found "no evidence to prove Poonamma's death". The possibility of a "live and lingering" Poonamma having been cremated cannot be ruled out, Ms. Advani said.

The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, represents the Kuppam Assembly constituency.

"There is no confirmation of death even when Poonamma reached the cremation ground," Ms. Advani said, describing the death as an extreme example of stigma and discrimination leading to a pathetic death in the backyard of her brother's house, unwanted by the neighbourhood and society. The crematorium, where the last rites were performed does not maintain a record of the dead.

A victim of poverty, social stigma, discrimination and isolation, Poonamma was also made a victim of "organised carelessness" and was let down by individuals and institutional structures, Ms. Advani said. Her death became a major controversy after the local newspapers reported it and non-governmental organisations alleged that she had been "stoned to death" by the villagers. The allegations of her being "physically killed" could not be substantiated, but the NCW team concluded that Poonamma was "driven to death" by the withdrawal of social and institutional support.

The team spoke to 28 persons, including police and medical officers, individually and interacted with 180 people during a public hearing at the village. "In the absence of a clear time of death, the team wondered whether Poonamma — while she was alive and lingering — was bundled and transported to the crematorium. The time of her death had not been established by an independent witness except for the version of her mother and brother. There is no corroborative evidence — not even a certificate by the doctor — to emphatically say whether she died at her house, during transportation while being taken to the crematorium or on the pyre," Ms. Advani said.

Even worse was the fact that she was cremated at a place meant for the Scheduled Castes. Her family refused to pick up the ashes fearing they would contract the "disease".

Poonamma tested positive for HIV/AIDS in June last year and came to stay with her mother and brother due to lack of medical facilities. She was confined to the backyard of her house where her mother looked after her until three days before her "death". Poonamma's family was reportedly pressured by neighbours to "get rid of her''. Unable to bear the social pressure, her brother allegedly "cremated" her with the help of three persons, who were paid Rs. 600 for the purpose.

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