Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Being minority, a greater sin - TJJ's Exclusive

It was Koovathur, a year before and Paleswaram this year, an infamous village from Kanchipuram district to hit the headlines in February with a much controversial subject.

In the midst of controversies and allegations lodged against them about organ trafficking and ill-treating senior citizens, the management of St Joseph's Hospices here in Paleswaram, defend themselves stating that they do not have anything to hide and are not doing anything illegal.
According to them, as these allegations and rumours seem to be very strong, they drown out the version of the hospice.

The elevation of St Joseph's Hospice at Paleswaram - by C Santhosh
When I, along with photographer C Santhosh visited the hospice and the village of Paleswaram, the entire neighbourhood, which is in the blindspot of Google Maps, was buzzing with the news about the old age home. It is alleged to be involved in illegal organ and human bone trafficking.

"We have seen helicopters flying through our village a couple of times. We suspect that the officials from various parts of the world are coming down here to the hospice to disburse funds and bribe the local government officials and police to keep the crimes happening here off the record," said Kalimuthu, a villager.

Not only this, Kalimuthu said, there are many other suspicious incidents happening in the hospice. "Yes," continued Boothalingam, another villager. "We have heard screams of patients taken care at the hospice and also have witnessed some of them trying to escape from the place." Since, there would not be any security guard at the hospice at night, the patients try to break out at the time, he said.

From the words of the villagers, it was clearly evident that rumours, though not proved, had been revolving around the hospice. "They have secret rooms to dispose and bury dead men. At least 60 patients die every month. All of them are buried in these secret rooms and after the bodies decay, the bones are said to be exported to Europe," said Kalimuthu.

When asked how he came to know what was happening inside the home, Kalimuthu said, "I have heard fellow villagers saying this." Further, he asked, "Then why should one bury a body in a European way in spite of a religious ritual?"

Corpse disposal vault - by C Santhosh
The management's voice:

Answering all these rumours and questions, the hospice management showed transparency with their explanation. "This is a hospice and people have to be clear about what kind of patients are taken care of here. Usually, hospice is a place where people on the verge of death are cared for. So, the rate of patients death would be naturally high here and people have to understand that," says Alex Pandian of the hospice. He openly admitted that they are short of funds and a lot of compromises have to be made in running the hospice. "Since the government has stopped foreign funding to minority missionaries and NGOs like us, it is not easy to run such a home with more than 300 patients," he said.

Putting an end to news of the alleged kidnap of Annamal, an elderly woman from Tambaram, to Paleswaram, a week back, Alex said, "She was mentally ill and so she was screaming all the way from Tambaram to our centre here. On seeing her screaming, a motorist stopped our ambulance and there arouse the entire problem as he filed a complaint against us."

It was in the same ambulance that Annammal was shifted to Paleswaram with another elderly man and a corpse. There were also loads of vegetables transported in the same vehicle. Explaining this, Alex said, "We have very few vehicles. And transportation cost is very high from Tambaram to Paleswaram. A couple of benevolent vegetable vendors in Tambaram market supply us vegetables every day. On the same day, we had to shift the three elderly people also. One of them died when the van was half way to the destination and so, the driver had to carry the corpse, too. So, we had no other go than to transport all of them in the same van."

The ambulance that transported Annammal and the corpse - by C Santhosh
About the screams and escape scenarios, Alex said, "Since most of the patients here are mentally ill, they naturally scream often. Also, they try to escape."

When asked about the corpse disposal vault, he said, "That is not illegal. We have licence to build and use that. It is nothing new in India as many missionaries and even civic bodies have similar vaults. Since we do not have a big space to maintain a cemetery, we built this vault." However, he did not comment on the expiry of the licence six months ago.

In the meantime, the district administration has ordered to shut down the hospice after shifting all the patients from there to different centres. The management is also ready to shift the patients. "We do not have enough funds to take care of them as we have a couple of other centres in the State. If they are going to be shifted to centres where they can get more support, we are happy to send them," said an official from the hospice. At present, 303 patients are in the hospice, who are to be shifted.

How it all started?

On 20 February, a complaint was raised against St Joseph's Hospices as they were allegedly kidnapping an elderly woman (Annammal) and a man along with a man's corpse from Tambaram to Paleswaram. However, at that time, the hospice management denied the claim and said they were actually shifting them from their Tambaram centre to Paleswaram centre.

Following this, a team of 60 officials from Tamilnadu government led by Revenue Division Officer and District Social Welfare Officer carried out an inspection at the hospice on 23 February. During the inspection it was found that around 60 people have died at the institution in January alone.

Also there were also rumours spreading in the neighbourhood that the hospice management has been exporting the bones of dead patients there illegally to Europe. They also claimed that, the organs of some patients too are being illegally trafficked overseas.

Following this, the team of Government officials today held second phase of inspection to shift the left out patients from the hospice. As the first step of this, as many as 30 patients comprising of 15 women are being shifted to another private old age home in Madhuranthagam in the district.

Officials during inspection - by Santhosh Mathevan
When I spoke with the Revenue Division Officer, Madhuranthagam division, Raju, he said, "Today(Feb 26), we are carrying out the second step of inspection and moving as many as 30 patients from here."

When asked how the patients who are being shifted are shortlisted, he said, "Some of them here are mentally ill. Initially we are moving patients who are well. They will be asked whether they are ready to move from here and of they are willing, we will shift them."

He also informed that as many as 323 patients are being taken care at the hospice and so they might take a couple of days to move all of them to different old age homes recognised by the government.

This isn't the first time:

In 2014, a first step of inspection was carried out by the district administration following similar allegations. However, the inspection went in favour of the hospice management as they were found clear with their documents.

Now, with the same kind of allegations being raised, the district administration has again started its inspection at the hospice. But, this time, it was found that the hospice management has failed to renew the licence of their corpse disposal vault. It is in this vault, the management has buried the corpses of the dead patients. The management said that they use the vault to bury and artificially dispose the bodies by chemicals. It takes 13 years for a body to decompose through these chemical methods.

My analysis:

From these versions at ground zero, all I can say is that, most of the allegations lodged over the hospice management would be false and they are innocent. It is a well known fact that central government stopped foreign funding of thousands of  minority  NGOs and missionaries in past three years. So, the hospice's claim over shortage of funds is found to be genuine. The management also gives convincing and believable answers to all the rumours spreading around it. And, I find most of the rumours funny. Of all the 'flying helicopters' is top notch.  There is an air base of BSF about 50 kilometers from Paleswaram.

Along with photographer C Santhosh
We cannot simply infer a conclusion regarding the export of bones. Because, it is not so easy to export something by ship or air without proper certification of customs department. Even a kid knows this. If something happens with the knowledge of customs, then they too have to be accused for the same, for failing their duty. On the other hand, we will have to check whether export of bones are made legal. If so, we have nothing to allege against the hospice.

By this, I am not totally for the hospice management as, they too have a lot of slips. Be it an expired licence, same vehicle to transport corpse and vegetables, and leaving an unsafe hospice during nights, they too have a lot of anomalies to be tagged. It is up to the investigators who need to find out what really went wrong. Till then, putting an end to all the hypothetical speculations and allegations over social media is what I suggest as a better solution for now. Because, above all, the hospice management has committed one more crime - that is, being a 'minority institution'.

- Santhosh Mathevan,
Paleswaram, Feb 27, 2018.