No biometric attendance system in mortuaries: Government faces contempt

Updated: Sep 07, 2019, 08:10 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

Failure to follow high court order also shines light on plight of forensic surgeons in autopsy centres

The autopsy centre at KEM Hospital
The autopsy centre at KEM Hospital

Failing to introduce biometric attendance system in state- and civic-run hospitals has left the government at the risk of being pulled up for contempt. A division bench of Bombay High Court Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice NM Jamdar, hearing a PIL, on June 20 ordered the introduction of the system to ensure only forensic experts conduct post mortem (PM) procedures.

On June 25, government pleader Purnima Kantharia forwarded the observations to additional chief secretary (home) and eight other bureaucrats in the health and police departments, asking the heads of all mortuaries to comply and maintain entries.

With the order not being adhered to even two months later, the petitioner is planning to move the HC for contempt. "The HC's order had to be adhered to in two weeks," said Advocate Adil Khatri, the petitioner. "Two months have lapsed and nothing has happened. I am filing a contempt of court petition soon."

While forensic surgeons welcome the order, they added that the ground realities at PM centres are different. They said while a biometric system could confirm that a forensic surgeon entered a PM centre, it will not be able to establish if they actually conducted the procedure. A forensic expert, on condition of anonymity, said that in rural areas, casualty medical officers – who may not be a forensic surgeon but could be an MBBS graduate or a post-graduate with expertise in one of 19 streams – perform the autopsy.

He said India lags behind the West, where forensic science and medicine form a crucial cog of the criminal justice system. "It is common here for autopsy findings to be ruled out or even negated to such an extent that it ends up benefiting the accused," said the expert, citing the July 2012 case of two young siblings who were found dead in their Versova home.

Initially, the cause of death was certified as being due to natural causes. Following an investigation, the bodies were exhumed and forensic tests revealed they had died of aluminium phosphide poisoning. Anexpert panel under Dr SM Patil raised serious questions, but the police failed to make a strong case.

Rajesh Dhere, professor of forensic medicine at Sion's LTMG Hospital, said they are adhering to the HC order, but added that there is shortage of manpower. He said most MBBS graduates do not choose forensic medicine due to a dearth of opportunities, lack of amenities in PM centres, and the high risk of infections.

"After the HC order, we ensure all autopsies [around 10 a day] are conducted by qualified forensic experts," said Dr Dhere. "We have asked college administrations to procure biometric systems for mortuaries. But there aren't enough forensic experts and it will be impossible to continue autopsies."

Another expert said forensic surgeons don't even get sterile gowns and are forced to work amid dried blood and decomposed flesh with no air-conditioning. "We don't even have proper rest rooms," he said. Dr Dhere said Maharashtra, where some districts use MBBS graduates to perform the autopsy and then get it approved by a forensic surgeon, should follow Kerala, where every district has its own forensic expert.

"Unfortunately, just a surgeon or forensic expert signs the PM findings, while ideally it should be counter-signed by a police or civil surgeon," said Dr Dhere. "But this practice has been never followed, due to which mistakes that happen while writing the report go unnoticed and the accused gets benefit."

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