How do Mumbai's hospitals guarantee the safety of newborns? After a four day-old baby went missing from Sion hospital in 2009, a biometric machine installed to correctly identify the parents of newborns now lies defunct. A bizarre system of the father's fingerprint identification has replaced it
On January 1, 2009, Mohini Nerurkar found that her four day-old son was missing from the civic-run Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital (also called Sion Hospital). The case followed a spate of abductions from several city hospitals (see box), incurring the ire of the High Court, that ordered the suspension of the doctor and nurse in-charge of the maternity ward, and instructed the hospital to install a biometric machine to avert future incidents.

The machine, which took the fingerprints of the mother and the footprint of the child and allowed the duo to be discharged only after the prints were matched, was installed at Sion Hospital nine months later.

However, SMD discovered that the machine stopped working three months ago and the hospital has resorted to a system of taking the father's fingerprints in a bid to keep the newborns safe.

Sion Hospital dean, Dr Sandhya Kamat said, "The machine does not work at times." However deputy dean Dr Nirmala Barse admitted the machine was not functioning. "The machine is facing some technical problems and is not working. But we have asked the security to be more alert," she said.

12,000 deliveries, the highest in the city, are reported from the Sion hospital, annually.

Associate professor of gynaecology Dr Rahul Mayekar, who is in-charge of the biometric identification system, said, "These are technical snags which medical professionals can't handle." He said a fingerprint system was being used in its place.

"When we didn't have the biometric machine, we used ink impressions of the mother and child. We are following the same procedure now."

However, after visiting the hospital's maternity and post-natal ward, SMD found that a different procedure was being followed.

The nurses told this reporter that  they were taking the father's thumb impression at the time of discharge.

When asked how this could identify the baby and make a correct match with its mother, a nurse said on condition of anonymity, "We have no idea how this can replace the earlier biometric identification system.

When the machine was functional, we would take the biometric impression of the mother's thumb and the child's foot. They would be discharged only after the impressions matched. Now, what prevents any woman from picking up a child and walking out of the ward?"

When asked, even Kamat was unable to explain.

Advocate Amit Karkhanis, who represented the Nerurkars in the High Court said, "While our case is awaiting a verdict, if the hospital has failed to keep the biometric system running, it's a violation of the court order."
Meanwhile, the hospital could take a leaf out of the book of other private hospitals that follow more logical identification procedures.

At Jaslok Hospital and Lilavati Hospital, an electronic wristband is used to identify infants. Medical Director of Jaslok Hospital SK Mohanty explained, "The electronic wristband carries the mother's hospital admission number. The data is fed into our computer systems. The band is removed when the child is ready to be discharged from the hospital." The bands sound an alarm if taken out of the hospital precincts.

The BMC health department receives information from all civic-run hospitals in the city. However, health officials told us that the civic body does not have any figures of the number of children that go missing from government hospitals.

"BMC doesn't compile the numbers of children that go missing from hospitals," said executive health officer Anil Bandivdekar.