Can you be fleeced after death? Yes, you can if you’re unfortunate enough to end up in a body bag awaiting an ambulance at Chandigarh’s Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER).
Unsuspecting relatives, already under the trauma of losing a loved one, have been exploited by two gangs operating an ambulance racket at the region’s prestigious hospital for the past two-and-a-half years.
In the absence of any board with information about the PGI’s ambulance service, attendants of the patient would hire illegal ambulances that charged Rs 30 per km against the approved rate of Rs 9 per km. For service in the tricity of Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali, the illegal ambulance gang charged Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 for a trip, while the right rate was Rs 300. If the dead body was to be taken within a distance of 100 km, the family of the deceased was told to pay Rs 4,000 instead of charges per km. PGI’s body packers and mortuary staff were paid anything between Rs 200 and Rs 500, while security guards were paid at the rate of Re 1 per km.
While PGI officials could not give a satisfactory answer about the missing posters/flex boards displaying contact details of its ambulance service, they told the police that the illegal operators were to blame for removing the information.
How the racket unfolded
The racket, involving the hospital’s security and sanitation staff, came to light on June 2 when an innocuous tip-off from an ambulance driver from Himachal Pradesh got the police cracking.
The ambulance driver had brought a family from the neighbouring hill state with a patient in a serious condition. The family requested he wait but within minutes some goons surfaced, demanding he leave the premises. They were members of one of the two gangs running the illegal ambulances at PGI. The rattled ambulance driver drove straight to the Sector 11 police station nearby but stopped short of filing a complaint.
Rot runs deep
Inspector Narinder Patial, the station house officer (SHO) at the Sector 11 police station, said though three guards, three body packers and a mortuary attendant at PGI had been arrested, the role of more employees was being probed. The kingpin of one of the gangs, Gagandeep Singh Mann, alias Fauji, in his 40s, is at large. He was a former body packer.
Fauji had observed a gang led by one Munna, who ran illegal ambulances with the help of security guards and body packers. He fought with the Munna group over a petty issue before entering the business as an illegal ambulance operator.
He roped in a mechanic called Satti but they fell out when he grew as his rival. In due course, one of the gangs operated in the day, while the other settled for ferrying bodies at night.
Ashwani Khanna, a lifetime member of the Chandigarh Red Cross that also operates ambulances, says he has lodged several complaints with PGI director Dr YK Chawla, chief security officer PC Sharma and the UT Red Cross authorities about ambulance drivers (of the Red Cross) being threatened by dubious elements on the premises. The genuine ambulance drivers were not allowed to operate, he says, adding no action was taken on his complaints..
‘Not registered as ambulances’
The police have found that most of the illegal ambulances were vehicles registered in neighbouring states. Of the 12 vehicles impounded, 10 had registration numbers of Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab. Two carried temporary numbers of Chandigarh. But none of them were registered as ambulances.
Meanwhile, the police have sought records of bodies despatched in these ‘ambulances’ in the past six months to establish the extortion and cheating charges.
NGOs struggle to meet demand
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have reported a sudden rise in demand for charitable ambulances after police blew the lid off the racket of illegal ambulances plying from PGI.
“Earlier, we would get hardly a call or two in a day from PGI but now there are 12-15 calls for the ambulance service. At times it becomes difficult to even take a break for food,” says an ambulance driver of a charitable trust, requesting anonymity.
Four NGOs that provide ambulance service at PGI are the Mata Mansa Devi Sewak Dal, Lifeline, and the Red Cross Societies of Punjab and Haryana.
These ambulances are available for Rs 8 per km to Rs 10 per km, depending upon the vehicle.