RECENT images and reports of patients of West Bengal’s Berhampore Mental Hospital languishing in a helpless state bereft of even the most basic human dignity sent shock waves across the country. It came to light that more than 50 inmates had been living without clothes for close to a month.
Every year on August 15, Anjali Mental Health Rights Organisation, an NGO, organises a celebration for the inmates, and for that its members visit the hospital a couple of days before the event.
Aditi Bose, project manager of the Berhampore unit of Anjali, told Frontline : “When we went to the Berhampore Mental Hospital on August 13, the first thing that struck me was the stench inside the place. More than the naked condition of the patients, it was the filth and the smell of the place that were harrowing. The toilets were slippery and dirty. One of the patients fell down as she was showing us the condition of the toilets. The floors were terribly dirty because the sweepers had not been coming. A large number of inmates, including men and women, were completely naked and had apparently been in that state for close to a month. It was like a living hell.”
Some of the inmates explained to the representatives of Anjali that they had to remain naked as their clothes were infested with lice; others claimed that their clothes had been taken to be washed and were yet to be returned; some also claimed that other inmates had thrown their clothes out of the window. What was shocking was that there was no attempt at any point by the hospital authorities, including the superintendent, to address this issue.
“It is not really a difficult task to retrieve the clothes that have been thrown out. For long we have been wanting the hospital to install netting in the window so that no one will be able to throw his clothes out, and more importantly, it will keep the mosquitoes also out. Mosquitoes are a major menace and source of illness because of the open drains in the region,” said Aditi Bose.
The inmates were in a pathetic state. The men were unshaven for weeks; their beards and hair were infested with lice. Many of the inmates lay on the filthy floors as their beds were full of bugs. In one corner of the hospital, said the activists, three women were huddled together on a single iron cot from which they had removed the bedding and the sheets to seek respite from the parasites.
This is not a new phenomenon in the Berhampore Mental Hospital. “Right from the start, we have had problems with the hospital, and it has been a constant struggle to ensure that patients have proper living conditions. The superintendent [who has been in charge of the hospital for the last seven years] hears us out but does absolutely nothing about it,” said Aditi Bose
Rukshana Khatun, an inmate for the last three years talked to Frontline and gave details of life inside the hospital:
“The doctor comes just once a week. He does not even touch anybody, does not enquire about anyone’s health; he just comes takes a round and goes off. I have had this pain in my hips for the last two years, and I have been asking the doctor to give me some medicine for it, but he never once prescribed any medicine. The superintendent, too, just comes and goes and never talks to anybody.
Many of the inmates of the upper floors remain naked; for months the toilets are not cleaned. We keep asking the hospital people to clean the toilets, but they don’t. The food is terrible. Often the vegetables are not even cooked properly. They do not even give us sufficient soap to wash ourselves or detergent to wash our clothes. We get one bar of soap in five months. When we ask for more, they do not give us any. Is it possible to make do with just that? We remain dirty, wearing the same unwashed clothes for months on end, and our heads are full of lice. We just have one set of clothes; we wash them and we wear them. What can be worse than this? People here have mental problems and nobody even asks about us.”
After the matter came to light, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), on August 18, took suo motu cognisance of the plight of the inmates of the Berhampore Mental Hospital and sought a report from Chief Secretary Basudeb Banerjee within eight weeks. The Commission also directed its Special Rapporteur, East Zone, Damodar Sarangi, to assess the situation and submit a report to it.
In its order, the NHRC observed: “Mentally ill patients are also entitled to the same inalienable rights as are availed to other human beings. They are entitled to be treated with dignity, decency and equality and cannot be discriminated against.” It also pointed out the “need to educate and change the attitude of the public authorities towards the persons suffering from mental illness”.
Forced into action by widespread condemnation, the hospital began to clean up and distributed fresh clothes and sheets to its inmates. However, hardly anybody, least of all the patients, is convinced that the authorities have turned over a new leaf. “The situation now may have improved, but this is what happens every time the authorities come under pressure. After 10 or 12 days, things will go back to being as they were before,” said Rukshana Khatun.
The Berhampore Mental Hospital is not an isolated case in the State. Between 2010 and 2013, as many as 84 patients, including 31 women, died in the state-run mental hospitals of West Bengal. Many activists believe that the majority of the patients had curable illnesses and they died because of neglect and callousness.
The rights activist Sabir Ahmed, who accessed the data on the deaths through a right to information (RTI) petition, told Frontline : “There may have been a lot of infrastructure development in the health sector, but because of lack of accountability the workings inside mental institutions remain very poor. What is required is a monitoring committee comprising representatives of civil society, such as retired judges and other eminent persons, and the government. This will help maintain a regular vigil on the goings-on inside mental institutions and ensure that the rights of the patients are protected.”
Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay