Odisha govt struggles to give dignity to the dead

LEFT OUT IN THE COLD Health officials say the number of hearse vehicles under Mahaprayan scheme, launched by chief minister Naveen Patnaik last year, are inadequate to cater to all requests

BHUBANESWAR: Nearly a year after Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik launched Mahaprayan, the hearse vehicle scheme in government hospitals is yet to bring dignity to the dead in the state.

On Wednesday, Sitaram Naik had admitted his 70-year-old mother B han um a tito the government-run community health centre in Sorada block of Gan jam, Patnaik’s home district.

Bhanumati died a few hours later and Sitaram thought he could get his mother to his village Sorishabil in a hearse vehicle of the hospital. But the nearest hearse van was at a bigger government hospital in Bhanjanagar, 30 km away.

After waiting for half an hour, Naik wrapped his mother’s body in polythene, tied it to a bamboo pole and carried it on his shoulders with the help of a fellow villager, to his home 4 km away.

Hours later, the televised image of Naik carrying his mother’s body on a bamboo pole evoked sharp reactions, with many recalling last year’s Dana Majhi incident in which the Kalahandi tribal had to carry his wife’s body on foot for 10 km and which had forced the BJD government to launch Mahaprayan on August 25.

“Where is Naveenbabu’s commitment of Mahaprayan van to carry dead body respectfully? Incapability and inefficiency of Naveen Patnaik government exposed again,” tweeted Dharmendra Pradhan, Union minister for petroleum and natural gas.

Since Mahaprayan’s launch, there have been around half a dozen such incidents in the state while several others have gone unreported.

In January this year, a man in Pallahara block of Angul district was forced to carry his 7-year-old niece on his shoulders after he was reportedly denied a vehicle.

Rathi Dhibar of Angul district could have walked longer but for a few kind locals who arranged a vehicle for the family after about a kilometre of walk. The state government suspended two doctors for dereliction of duty.

Last weekend, a man in the temple town of Puri had to carry his daughter’s body on a pedal cart from the hospital to the crematorium amidst thousands of Lord Jagannath devotees for want of a hearse vehicle.

Embarrassed Odisha health department officials say the number of hearse vehicles under the scheme are simply inadequate to carry all the dead back home.

“We have just around 40 vehicles,” said Kailash Chandra Dash, director of health services, adding that doctors and officials are doing their best to meet the demand.

The hearse van scheme is free only for BPL people. Others have to pay ₹200 for the first 10 km and ₹10-12 per kilometre thereafter.

Apart from the 30 district headquarter hospitals and three government medical colleges — with two more in the offing, the state has 377 community health centres at the block level and another 1,200 primary health centres in village panchayats.

With an annual death rate of 8.4 per 1,000 people every year or nearly 30,000 per month as per the 2016 Economic Survey Report, health officials argue that the state needs at least 1,600 more vehicles at these health centres to meet the demand.

But in a state where there is a doctor for 1,700 patients against the WHO norm of 1 for 1,000, such infrastructural issues take a backseat.

Of the sanctioned strength of 6,700 doctors in the state, currently only 5,116 are serving while in the backward KBK districts, there are 1,367 MBBS doctors of the sanctioned 1,967.

A health department official, on condition of anonymity, said, “We are too focussed on recruiting doctors and starting medical colleges than having more hearse vans. The scheme has been thrust upon the department.”

Even as Mahaprayan hobbles due to lack of adequate vehicles, respective district collectors can sanction money to the poor for carrying the dead in private vehicles under the Red Cross Fund or chief minister’s relief fund.

But the process is mired in tardiness with sanction by the district collectors taking anything between a couple of days to a week.

“Do you think a man is going to wait for the money (so long) to take the body of his near and dear home?” asked an official.

On the other hand, officials allege people’s impatience is taking its toll. Last month, a 13-yearold girl in Kandhamal district was declared brought dead after she reached the district headquarter hospital in Phulbani.

After the post-mortem, the girl’s father did not even wait for the medical certificate as he put the body on a stretcher.

“The hearse vehicle was parked a kilometre away and was on its way. But the man would have none of it. We finally put the body in the hearse van, but the damage was done,” said Swapneswar Gadnayak, chief district medical officer of Kandhamal.

State health secretary, Pramod Meherda said it was too early to pronounce judgement on the scheme. “I have formed WhatsApp group in each district where police, medical and revenue officials are members. Once a person dies, the group members get to know. But if one takes the body forcefully, we are helpless,” he said.

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