Calcutta High Court
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Article 21 includes right to a decent burial/ last rites: Plea in Calcutta HC to hand over dead bodies of COVID-19 patients to family

While detailing how the dead bodies are disposed of in Kolkata, the petitioner says "None of the family members even get to see the body or face of the deceased as if he or she disappeared like a ghost into nowhere."

Rintu Mariam Biju

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) plea has been moved in the Calcutta High Court seeking to direct the authorities to hand over the dead bodies of persons who have died on account of COVID-19 to the family members for burial/cremation (Vineet Ruia v. Principal Secretary, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt of West Bengal & Ors).

The plea filed by Vineet Ruia further seeks to direct the authorities to strictly follow the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) and the West Bengal State Health and Family Welfare Department pertaining to safe and proper cremation/burial of the dead bodies.

The petition points out that the MOHFW had issued certain guidelines on account of COVID-19 pertaining to Dead Body Management on March 15.

Subsequently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had issued similar guidelines titled Infection Prevention and Control for the Safe Management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 on March 24.

It is stated that the WHO directions clearly state that the crematorium/ burial ground staff should be sensitized so that COVID 19 does not pose an additional risk after the death of a person.

Inter alia, it is noted that the guidelines also allow for,

  • Viewing of the dead body by unzipping the face end of the body bag (by the staff using standard precautions) may be allowed, for the relatives to see the body for one last time, and

  • Religious rituals such as reading from religious scripts, sprinkling holy water and any other last rites that does not require touching of the body.

Similar guidelines were also issued by the West Bengal State Health and Family Welfare Department, the petition adds.

The petitioner goes on to contend that the aforesaid directions remain on paper and that in practice, these directions/ guidelines are not being followed.

The petitioner has alleged that that dead bodies were neither being handed over to the family members of the victims nor were families being allowed to pay their last respects.

"As soon as the patient dies, the hospital packs the body in plastic sheets and calls the health department. In the meantime, the family of the deceased is called only for the purpose of making the payment of hospital bill amounting to a few lakh rupees. The dead body is not shown to the family", the petition states.

Referring to deaths in Kolkata, the petitioner says that the health department takes the body away to a place called “DHAPA” and at times, 2-3 dead bodies are being burned in a single go. However, this cannot be confirmed as no one is allowed to enter into the area.

"None of the family members even get to see the body or the face of the deceased as if he or she disappeared like a ghost into nowhere", the petitioner submits.

The petitioner goes on to inform that the Governor of West Bengal had written a letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal on May 4 over these issues. However, the situation still remains to be the same.

In this backdrop, the PIL has contended that every deceased person is entitled to a decent burial, which is a subset of Article 21 as per many Sypreme Court decisions.

"Right to Life and a Dignified Life under Article 21 as a fundamental right. The Supreme Court through various cases has held that the right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is not only available to a living man but also to his body after his death."

PIL Petitioner

It is further argued that that when a guideline has been issued by the Central Ministry as well as the State for a certain disease or a temporary pandemic, then every State shall be bound to follow the same process/ rules as mentioned.

The prayers made by the petitioner include

  • a direction to the State Goernment to hand over the dead bodies of persons who have died on account of COVID-19 to their families.

  • a direction to the State Goernment to issue a circular that the guidelines earlier issued by the MOHFW and also the West Bengal State Health and Family Welfare Department are compulsorily followed to ensure the safe cremation/ burial of persons who have died due to COVID-19.

  • Even if the rules allowing the body to be handed over to the families are changed and if only the Government is to perform the cremation/ burial, the family of the deceased should be allowed to see the body a last time, perform the cremation/burial with due safety and collect the ashes for last rites.

The PIL also urges that there must be transparency in the declaration of the COVID-19 cases. To this effect, the PIL states that the Government of West Bengal should be directed to publish a district-wise list with names of all the persons who have contracted the virus.

This would help the Government track each case thereby helping it to monitor and control the spreading disease, the petitioner adds.

Read plea here:

COVID-19 CORPSES (DEAD BODIES) AND REPORTING Full Petition.pdf
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