DUST-ENCRUSTED BOTTLES lie in a heap in a room in the district mortuary in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Inside the bottles are rotting human organs -- pieces of kidney, liver, spleen, heart and even foetuses.
These are the visceral samples of people who died in suspicious circumstances. Possibly the most crucial clues in the criminal cases to which they are related, they should have been at the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Agra. But they lie forgotten - some since the 1980s - with only numbers marked in chalk on them for their identification.
There are 15,000 such jars, according to mortuary records - apart from skulls and bones --filling three rooms of the mortuary building because police did not send the viscera for examination. Said R.B. Agarwal, chief medical officer (CMO), Aligarh: "Hundreds of medico-legal cases might be pending in the district courts because the police did not send the viscera to be examined. Murderers may have got off scot-free."
Some police and judicial officers, who did not wish to be named, said justice might have been denied in some cases simply because the viscera were not sent for chemical analysis.
In two jars are the viscera of Syed Hashim Ali, 21. A student of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), he was arrested after a clash with a rival group. He died in police lockup in 2001. Ali's family alleged he was poisoned in his cell, but nothing could be proved in court since Ali's viscera never reached the Agra FSL. "We staged a dharna outside the district magistrate's office, demanding the viscera report be filed in court, but the administration did not help us," said Ali's brother Faiz Ahmed.
Viscera are preserved to ascertain the cause of death in cases where autopsies are inconclusive, mostly in suspected cases of poisoning and dowry deaths. Viscera for each case are collected in two jars and sent for chemical examination within 15 days of the postmortem. In 2006, the viscera were preserved in 121 cases. Of these, only eight have been sent to Agra.
Since the mortuary has turned into a storehouse, autopsies are being conducted in the open. After complaints from locals, the CMO wrote to Akhil Kumar, senior superintendent of police (SSP), Aligarh, in August, requesting the jars be sent to the FSL.
Kumar, in a circular dated August 28, directed police stations to collect viscera jars that pertain to cases under their jurisdiction and send them to the FSL.
J.B. Singh, caretaker of the mortuary, said after the circular, police did collect a few jars that related to recent cases. He said the viscera in most of the jars were decomposing. "It is little use sending them to the FSL now. We preserve viscera in saline solution that prevents it from rotting for 45 days. Police have not collected viscera jars because they do not have any records," said Singh.
He was right. The Civil Line Police station did not have any record that Ali's viscera were preserved. There are no records either of the number of cases in which the viscera have not been sent for analysis.
Said superintendent of police Atul Saxena, "The viscera, as per the procedure, should have been compulsorily sent for analysis to the forensic laboratory. The investigative officer of the case is responsible for this."
"Police can collect the viscera along with the autopsy reports but they don't," said Agarwal. He said viscera could not be destroyed without the court's permission and the judiciary should take action.
In 1989, the Uttar Pradesh government had constituted a committee headed by the chief judicial magistrate to inspect mortuaries and organise the destruction of old viscera. That did not accomplish much but this time, Agarwal said it was time for a similar committee.