Today's Paper

Inmates in chains, couldn't escape: panel

CHENNAI Oct. 31. The Ramadas Commission, set up to inquire into the death of 28 mentally ill patients at a private asylum at Erwadi in Ramanathapuram district last year, has concluded that the inmates died "as they were fettered with chains and tied to poles and in the absence of immediate fire service aid".

In its report, tabled in the Assembly today, the Commission noted that on the day of the fire— August 6, 2001— out of the 43 patients in the asylum, 25 chained inmates were charred to death on the spot. Five women patients were rescued, but they sustained severe burns. Of them, three died in the government hospital at Ramanathapuram the next day and the other two were treated and discharged.

"As the deceased were fettered with chains and tied to poles, they could not escape. The rest of the patients escaped, as they were not chained. The caretakers of the home concentrated on retrieving their personal belongings, without taking steps to rescue the patients by breaking their chains. The entire shed was gutted in a few minutes," the Commission said.

The report also noted: "Ironically, during the relevant time, the Erwadi fire service van was at a Ramanathapuram workshop for repairs. The Erwadi Fire Service was immediately informed of the fire and it requisitioned the services of the Ramanathapuram fire unit. Fire engines had to come from Ramanathapuram and Keelakarai, but meanwhile the entire shed was gutted. Had the Erwadi fire brigade come immediately, the death of the inmates might have been, to a certain extent, averted".

However, "the State's action, subsequent to the Erwadi incident, is swift and follow-up is thorough... The tragedy has yet again highlighted the need for organised mental health care in the State".

On the action taken by authorities prior to the fire, the report noted that though many committees had inspected the homes at Erwadi and though eight diarrhoea deaths had been reported a year before, there was "indifference" on the part of the State and district authorities in implementing their recommendations, notably on `unchaining' inmates.

The Commission made 24 recommendations. It noted that the State had only one Government Mental Institute in Chennai, and so it was inconvenient for patients from distant parts of the State. It suggested establishment of mental hospitals in Thanjavur, Tiruchi, Madurai and Ramanathapuram - one of them exclusively for women. Psychiatrists should be posted in the remaining 14 districts, where there was none. Psychiatric clinics should be established in all district headquarters hospitals. There should be at least 10-bed psychiatric wards in all district hospitals. All concessions extended to the physically handicapped should be extended to mentally challenged patients.

The functioning of asylums at all places of worship should be thoroughly probed and the police station officer of the area should ensure closure of unlicensed asylums and shifting of the patients to nearby government hospitals.

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