When Kumar was discovered lying outside the Nageswara Rao Park last week, he was slowly dying of dehydration. He had not eaten in 12 days.

"He said he was around 60 years old, but could not say anything else," says P.Chandrasekar, an emergency medical technician of the EMRI 108 ambulance service. "When we reached the hospital, he was not able to tell what his problem was."

On an average, 100 such 'unknown victims' are picked up from the city's roads every month by the 108 ambulance service. The victims are usually the mentally ill, elderly who have been left on the streets or wandering destitute from neighbouring States. Many of them are chronically wounded, starving or unconscious. Some even die on the road, unnoticed and unattended to.

Mr. Chandrasekar says that due to lack of rehabilitation mechanisms and extended care, many end up on the road again. "I've picked up victims with worms oozing out of wounds. They end up on the street again and I pick them up from some other spot just two days later," he adds.

B. Prabhudoss, regional manager of EMRI, says that the victims are predominantly mentally ill and have difficulty communicating. "Over 40 persons are picked up from the Central railway station alone. Other hotspots are the Marina beach and the Broadway bus stand."

Explaining the challenges which are involved, he says: "Many are repeat cases. They have to bathed and clothed before being taken to the hospital and the ambulance has to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitised later. The next case could be a pregnant woman and hygienic conditions are essential. The whole process increases the turnaround time and we could miss an actual emergency. There is a need for a dedicated agency to pick them up, provide care and rehabilitate them into normal life."

The Chennai Corporation was involved for a brief period in relocating some of these destitute road-dwellers to either a mental institution or an old age home. Mayor M. Subramanian says the Corporation has transferred nearly 1,300 persons to a facility till now, but "someone has to do it continuously".

Vandana Gopikumar of The Banyan, an NGO that provides psychiatric and medical care to mentally ill destitute women, says that with the numbers of 'unknown victims' steadily rising, there is a need for a community-based rehabilitation policy. "It should be a collaborative effort between mental health institutions, police and civil society groups. A rescue and rehabilitation helpline could be jointly set up and open shelters with non-restrictive environments must come up. We need a humane system that proactively reaches out."