The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sunset death vagrant woe

If an inmate of the Dhakuria home for vagrants dies after sunset, the body cannot be cremated the same day. And if the next day happens to be a weekly or general holiday, the vagrant has to be lucky if the procedure following the death — especially the magisterial inquest — is completed without a hitch.

A 50-year-old inmate of the home was not so lucky, after all. On Friday, he was declared dead by a doctor at 5 pm. By the rules, an inquest cannot be conducted after sunset, because any external injury cannot be detected except under sunlight. The next day being a Saturday, only one magistrate was on duty. But he was conducting another inquest. So, the entire process was delayed till Saturday-end, explained Sudhir Dutta, controller of vagrancy, on Sunday. “By this time, an endless number of phone calls had to be made, and all the senior officers had to intervene in order to get the procedure completed,” he added.

This is not the first such case at the Dhakuria home. It has happened to the dead at the state government home many more times in the past — twice, in fact, in less than six months’ time.

Human rights commission and Supreme Court guidelines make it mandatory for the home authorities to conduct a magisterial inquest following custodial death. It is also compulsory to get the process video-recorded.

But without the available infrastructure — immediate availability of a magistrate, a photographer, or the possibility to shift the body to a morgue -— the home authorities run from pillar to post every time an inmate dies.

“We are not empowered to take the body to a morgue. But it is difficult to keep the body at the home, because it might have an adverse impact on the minds of the other 150-odd inmates, as most of them require psychiatric treatment,” Dutta said.

The situation is worsened by the fact that the home is situated in a predominantly residential locality. “We cannot keep a dead body in a condition that might turn unhygienic not just for the inmates but also for the neighbourhood,” Dutta added.

The state government has 1,500 inmates living in 10 vagrant homes across the state. Those moving about listlessly in the streets and appearing to be vagrants are rounded up by police and put before a special magistrate under the Vagrancy Act of 1943. The special magistrate, after a summary inquiry, declares them as vagrants under the Act. They are then kept in the government homes for rehabilitation and offered treatment.

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