R. Sujatha and K. Lakshmi

Private van operators cash in on poor mortuary service in government hospitals

CHENNAI: The bereaved family of a 16-year-old victim had a tough time transporting the body from Kilpauk Medical College Hospital to their home in Ennore. After haggling for half a day with private van operators outside the hospital premises, the family shelled out Rs. 850 for the trip.

Social worker A. Bosco, who accompanied the family, said, "the driver of the hospital's mortuary van was on leave. The four private operators demanded around Rs. 1,400 for the trip. I had to argue to bring down the rate."

Fleecing the bereaved in their moment of crisis is more or less widespread in all government hospitals in the city. The problem is aggravated because only government hospitals are authorised to take up autopsy in medico-legal cases.

Enquiries revealed that the KMC's only mortuary van was condemned several months ago while the only vehicle in Government Royapettah Hospital (GRH) broke down three months ago.

At the Government General Hospital, seven vans of Trauma Care Consortium are used to move accident victims. Currently, the GRH also uses these vans to transport the dead, a senior doctor said. When the vans are not available, private operators pitch in, charging a minimum of Rs. 700 for a local trip, said a hospital employee.

Senior officials of the GRH and Stanley Hospital said families were expected to make their own arrangements. A few doctors admit that a hospital needs three or four vans. But, lack of funds forces hospitals to allow private van operators. A private funeral agency charges Rs. 3,000, including transportation costs, pointed out social workers.

P.T. Ali, who runs Accident and Death Care Cell, a non-governmental organisation, said that last month the GGH refused permission to preserve the body of a watchman who had died in an apartment block. Until five months ago, the hospital allowed outsiders to maintain dead bodies in its mortuary for a nominal fee. The system was abandoned following complaints of bribery against a section of staff. Now, people have to route requests through the Casualty Department, whether or not the death is of a medico-legal nature.

Mr. Ali said private funeral agencies provided freezer boxes for Rs. 20 a day to the poor. But, the poor used to opt for the GH's mortuary service, which was Rs.10 a day. "In medico-legal cases, the distraught family members have also to run around for the necessary police documents." The NGO's letters, appealing for a coordinator at the hospital to deal with such cases, to the Chief Minister, the Health Department and the Deans of Medical Colleges, have not elicited any response, he said.