Mumbai Local

Wanted: a better life in the mortuary

The stench in the post-mortem room in a public hospital is so strong that is impossible to stop the retching. A haphazard pile of rotting shroud-less bodies lies on the blood-dried floor. The vault doors have gaping holes in place of racks and stretchers on which the dead are kept are rusty and broken. Through the holes are visible some more heaps of corpses awaiting disposal.

The four State-run post-mortem centres in the city at JJ, Cooper, Bhagwati and Rajawadi hospitals are overflowing with unclaimed bodies, some for as long as eight months. Prolonged neglect and lack of upkeep at these centres has driven mortuary workers to despair. Many are now demanding better work conditions and good quality equipment to enable them to do their duty and live “like human beings”.

Some of the workers who have raised their voice spoke to The Hindu on the condition of anonymity. “Our shoes, clothes and skin hold the smell of flesh so much that dogs follow us on the streets. When we cut open a body blood gets spattered on us. The flimsy apron and limited number of gloves we are given do not meet our requirement. We need to bathe and wash clothes in hot water, and we had to buy a geyser with our own money,” said a worker.

Some have even paid for the knives and scissors required for incision. The ones given by the government have become blunt with time. A typical autopsy kit should include protective apparatus such as gloves, gumboots, masks, apron, a chemical soap and cleaning apparatus. However, workers said most items provided to them are of inferior quality. “The aprons are so thin, they tear easily,” said a worker at a suburban post-mortem centre. A can of black phenyl, which was given to workers at one of the centres recently, had the expiry date of July 2014.

A ‘mortuary servant’, who shifts bodies coming from the ambulance to the morgue, gets five disposable gloves per month. A ‘post-mortem servant’, who cuts the body and makes it ready for the doctor to perform autopsy, gets 10 disposable gloves a month and one soap cake.

“To prepare a body for autopsy, we make an incision under the chin till the groin. Then each of the body parts, heart, kidney, lungs, liver, spleen, intestines, brain and stomach are removed by hand. We have to sink our hand in the body till our elbow. Whereas, the gloves we get come up to the wrists. Would we not run the risk of infections or HIV? You need half a kilogram of cotton for one body, which contains two to three litres of blood. We are given around 15 bundles of cotton for the whole year, which is grossly insufficient,” a worker said.

The four centres employ 78 workers as against a requirement of 124. Regular health check ups are not conducted and medical claims are kept pending.

“Deaths due to burns, HIV, firing, railway accidents, strangulation, snake bites, poison, electrocution, TB, jaundice, Hepatitis B, cancer and diabetes, all kinds of bodies come to the mortuary. In cases of burns, lungs get infected. TB and jaundice affected bodies are most dangerous for us to handle,” they said.

The worker’s plan to form a union called Sarva Shramik Sangh has raised the government’s hackles. The state has denied administrative laxity. “We provide them all the necessary material. They do not wear the masks and gloves on purpose,” said police surgeon SM Patil.

“We give them 30 blades a month and HIV kits. Every three years, we give two pairs of uniforms. Washing allowance of Rs 50 a month is a part of their pay. All the facilities are there. Why should they form a union? This is a sensitive issue. There will be law and order problems. If they go on strike, who will clear the bodies?”

With Mumbai police being busy in bandobast duty, investigations get delayed resulting in bodies piling up, he pointed out. He also accused the staff of demanding money from distraught relatives as well as consuming alcohol.

Workers refuted the allegations of drinking on the job. “Perhaps a couple of them do,” they said, “but does that mean we are all drunkards? We chew tobacco because it keeps us from retching and so that we can spit out that bad feeling after the job is done.”

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 3:11:41 PM |

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