Mirror Expose: How grieving families of dead are fleeced by the hearse mafia

Dozens of privately run ambulances doubling as hearses outside public hospitals are driving the unregulated industry of transporting the dead in Mumbai, profiting from heartbroken families’ need to promptly take

Lata Mishra | Mumbai Mirror
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Dozens of privately run ambulances doubling as hearses outside public hospitals are driving the unregulated industry of transporting the dead in Mumbai, profiting from heartbroken families’ need to promptly take their deceased loved ones first home, then to the funeral.

The ambulances charge anywhere between Rs 800 to Rs 3,000 for conveying a body within city limits, a service which is supposed to be offered for a reasonable fee on compassionate grounds. The BMC provides the same service for a nominal charge of Rs 50 per hour. But it has only two functional hearse vans, which means poor families that frequent 21 municipal medical facilities across Mumbai have no option but to hire private ambulances.

The general shortage of special vehicles for carrying the dead has also allowed the private operators to impose a sort of surge pricing. On Monday, an operator demanded Rs 1,000 from the family of 14-year-old Khushi Jagatnarayan Sharma, who died because of complications related to typhoid, for transporting her body from Sion Hospital to Vikhroli Parksite, a distance of barely 12 km.

“The morgue office didn’t inform us that you can hire a BMC hearse. As soon as the body was handed over to us, a man approached us, offering transportation for Rs 1,000. We were not in a mind frame to question or argue. We agreed,” said Khushi’s uncle, Shyamnarayan Sharma.

He added: “Who would have the strength to haggle in such painful moments? I mean shouldn’t these ambulance operators show some compassion.”

Many politicians and parties have donated ambulances to help the poor. The drivers of these vehicles are supposed to only seek money for fuel from distraught relatives, but they allegedly charge at will.

Mirror Expose: How grieving families of dead are fleeced by the hearse mafia

Mirror has also learned that often, some staff members at public hospitals don’t inform families that they can call for a BMC hearse. They instead direct them to the ambulances lined up outside.

Manoj Jaiswal, who lost his 55-year-old father Subhash Jaiswal on February 15, said there was definitely a cosy arrangement between ambulance operators and staff at hospital morgues. “The staff members either provide relatives the number of ambulance operators or immediately make the call themselves. These operators don’t have fixed charges and never give a receipt,” he said.

Manoj paid Rs 800 to an ambulance driver for conveying his father’s body from KEM Hospital to Kurla East. “The driver first demanded Rs 1,500 before agreeing to Rs 800. It took him only 50 minutes to reach Kurla East. A BMC hearse would have cost only Rs 100,” he said.

Kiran Ingle’s 27-year-old sister, Sharda Ingle, died at KEM Hospital on February 14. “We paid Rs 1,500 for a private hearse service from the hospital to Bhandup. The hospital morgue didn’t tell us that we can also call for a BMC van,” Kiran said.

But there are also cases where families don’t want to wait for a municipal van to arrive. The civic body struggles to promptly attend to calls from hospitals and relatives because only two of the four vehicles it has for transporting the deceased are in a working condition. The hearse service number is constantly busy. When Mirror’s call finally went through after a number of attempts on Monday, attendant Kishore Jadhav said the two vans were already engaged. On the charges, he said: “Rs 50 per hour and Rs 50 for the return journey.”

The four major public hospitals — KEM, Sion, Nair, and JJ — have attached medical colleges and dedicated forensic departments, which get a high number of medico-legal cases every day. None of the hospitals have their own hearse service. The private ambulances parked illegally outside fill in the gap.

“Majority of these ambulances were donated by political parties with intention of helping poor families during a difficult time. But people who drive the vehicles are exploiting the situation,” said Dr Rajesh Dere, a senior forensic expert at KEM. “The government should set down some rules and fix charges.”

A senior BMC official said there was a shortage of hearses in the city. “Ideally, ambulances should not be used to transfer a body,” he said.

Rais Shaikh, the Samajwadi Party group leader in the civic body, alleged a major racket. “I once tried to arrange a BMC hearse for a poor family at Nair Hospital, but it was not available. There were many private vans outside the hospital. Who is allowing them to operate this way?” he said.

Mirror Expose: How grieving families of dead are fleeced by the hearse mafia

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