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St. Joseph’s Hospice Saga Reveals Extra-Constitutional Clout of Christian Institutions

Author:  Mahakrishnan
Publication: Hindupost.in
Date: March 11, 2018
URL:      https://www.hindupost.in/news/st-josephs-hospice-saga-reveals-extra-constitutional-clout-christian-institutions/?amp_markup=1&__twitter_impression=true

Skeletons have literally started tumbling out of St.Joseph’s Hospice for the destitute since the morning the locals of Kanchipuram caught an ambulance escorting two healthy elderly people with a corpse and some sacks claimed to contain vegetables for the hospice.

On 20th February, a beacon fitted vehicle was stopped by the locals at Salavakkam when a passerby heard cries of “Save me! Save me!” from the vehicle. Apparently that passerby didn’t care for it at first, but the pleading face of Annamal (71) who shouted so made him turn back and stop the vehicle. Annamal, after being rescued by the locals, said that she ran away from her home after a misunderstanding with her family. She was found by the police who sent her to St.Joseph’s Hospice’s branch at Tambaram.

As per the hospice’s website, Tambaram branch can only accommodate 30 persons, as it was founded for the purpose of acting as a ‘collection centre’. There, the woman saw 2 dead persons on arrival and asked to be released since she was only looking for an old age home. She said she didn’t want to live amidst the corpses, despite which she was kept there for two days. After that, 2 visiting doctors examined her, declared her healthy and advised to release her the next day as she wanted to go home anyway. On the next day, when she asked about it, she was angrily told to get on the vehicle to which she took objection and asked to be sent through bus. She said on air that she begged the driver to at least drop her at Tambaram as she can go home from there on her own. But no one seemed to have paid heed to her requests as she was rescued on the way from Tambaram to Paleswaram branch.

St.Joseph’s Hospices were founded and run by one Fr. Thomas using funds raised through an FCRA NGO ‘Light for the Blind-India’ which receives funds mainly from a charity in UK, ‘Light for the Blind’. Mr. Thomas claimed in a press meet that it only constitutes 35% of the total funds and their papers are clear. While the headquarters is in a village in Dindigul, three other branches are there in Tambaram, Vellore and Paleswaram.

Even as the vehicle was seized and taken to the police station (the driver escaped but was arrested later), the local residents protested against the police and the district administration for not taking any action against the hospice despite repeated complaints for six years.

The institution started operating in March 2011; a team of officials from the Social Welfare and police departments inspected the campus in February 2012 after the local residents who were annoyed, as reported by The Hindu, brought unauthorised disposal of corpses to the notice of the media.

Mr. Thomas couldn’t produce proper documents for notifying the Village Administrative Officer (VAO) of the deaths or permitting him to build the vault cemetery structure. He said that he used to ‘inform’ the VAO. He is saying the same even now. But how long ago he used to inform is not clear.

Back in 2012 he told the Social welfare officer that he explained the reusable vault method to the Superintendent of Police (SP) for Kanchipuram while obtaining an NOC for it. However, he could only produce a covering letter addressed to the SP requesting him to do so. In the recent press meet, he said that he approached the district collector for permission, who then asked him to get the approval of SP and that the SP gave him ‘permission’. He read out a letter he claimed to be from the SP containing words such as ‘permission granted’ and claimed that it’s the license. No media has cared to publish the copy of that letter, even though the most serious accusation has been about the legality of the burial vault.

However, The Hindu’s Tamil report clearly says that it was only a copy of the recommendation letter from the SP to the district collector. The process of getting permission to have a burial/cremation ground is to approach the municipality/panchayat who will have to pass a resolution in the council to issue the license.

Here is an excerpt of a judgement on issues regarding establishing a burial vault cemetery like that in St.Joseph’s Hospice’s grounds:

“The petitioner Church owns an extent of 53.5 cents of dry land comprised in Sy.No.1492/4 of Madakkathara Village. The petitioner had submitted an application for the purpose of constructing a “vault type cemetery” in the property. Ext.P2 is the said application. The fourth respondent passed a resolution after considering the application, at its meeting on 15.12.2010 recommending that it had no objection to the grant of a license to construct the cemetery. The District Medical Officer also recommended the construction of the cemetery as per Ext.P5.

On the basis of the above recommendations, a license was issued to the petitioner Church as per Ext.P6 by the Panchayat for the construction of the cemetery. The second respondent thereupon forwarded the same to the fifth respondent for the purpose of conduct of an enquiry  W.P.(C).No.7060 of 2013 and report regarding the proposal.

The District Collector thereafter issued a public notice in the Malayalam Manorama daily dated 17.8.2012 inviting objections from the general public. Thereafter the District Collector heard the objections and by Ext.P12 order declined to grant permission to the petitioner to conduct the cemetery. The permission has been declined for the reason that, the persons residing in the locality had expressed an apprehension that there would be pollution if the cemetery is established as proposed.”

All Mr. Thomas had in his possession was the applications and the recommendation letter from SP, which he apparently paraphrased while reading it out to media.

These vault structures have a 27ft deep pit at the back where the remains, i.e., bones, as the flesh supposedly melts in the tropical heat, are pushed in and the new corpse is placed. As per the Christian personal law, a grave is supposed to be reopened only after 14 years. Now whether it’s the pit or the vaults to which this rule applies is unclear.

The New Indian Express reports locals claiming that the vaults were cleared every few months. It also says that the rules mandate that the remains in vaults be cleared only once in 13 years. The issue with this method is that even in Kerala, where Mr. Thomas claims that it is widely used, there are no provisions in the law that make it legal. It was taken up only as an alternative in the face of space constraints and the municipality council presented it in the meeting to obtain permission.

It is a mystery that even after nearly 3 decades, no clear rules have been formed for this specific method of burial. The vaults in Kerala have plaques consisting of the name and details of the dead person. But the ones in Paleswaram and Dindigul have no such details which brings two questions to our minds. Did Mr. Thomas who feels his ‘service’ to the poorest of the poor is ‘misunderstood & deliberately slandered’ think that the destitute don’t deserve to be remembered? Are the number of deaths given by him (1590) false? This question arises because the capacity of the vault cemetery is 4000 as told by him in the press meet, and by all accounts the vaults have been reopened multiple times.
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