A little over 70 kilometres from Chennai city, the St Joseph’s Hospice sprawls across the arid village of Palaswaram in Kancheepuram district. The vast campus that serves as a destitute home for men and women has come under the scanner after a truck, dressed as an ambulance, was found to be ferrying a corpse, an old man and an old woman, along with vegetables, to the centre.
The incident came to light after a motorist traveling along the Salavakkam-Edayamputhur road heard the screams of an elderly woman, who called to him from inside the truck and asked him to save her.
Speaking to Thanthi TV, the elderly woman who was rescued, identified as Annamal from Tiruvallur district said that she had left her kin’s house after a fight with them, when she was picked up from Little Mount and brought to St Joseph's Hospice’s Tambaram branch.
“They took me away on Saturday or Sunday. I was in Little Mount. When I went inside, I saw that there were two dead bodies there. The other people who were there were very sick. After seeing that, I thought, I am well – why have they brought me here with the dead? I only wanted a hostel to stay, not an ashram like this,” Annamal said.
“I said, I don’t like it, I don’t like it, I don’t like it! I told them I won’t stay there. Every day I begged them, but I wasn’t allowed to go,” she added.
The woman went on to say that she was examined by two doctors on Monday, who asked why she was being kept at the hospice when she was well. The next day, she was then bundled into the ambulance/truck along with a dead body and another man. Narrating the sequence of events, the woman said, “The doctors told them, the old lady has to be released tomorrow. And they left. Then in the morning when I asked, they angrily said to get into the vehicle. I asked them to send me by bus instead, but they didn’t agree. They made me sit in the vehicle. Then they sent the old man inside. And then they brought a dead body and put it inside.”
When asked what else was inside the vehicle, the old lady said, "Only vegetables. There were bags of vegetables stacked. They put the body in after I got into the vehicle.”
“I pleaded with them to let me go in Tambaram. I asked them with folded hands. But the boy (driver) didn't stop,” she further said.
A ward at the hospice
On hearing the elderly woman’s scream for help, a motorist passing by intervened and forced the ambulance to stop. “I was returning from work. The grandma showed her hand through the window. She said please save me, please save me. I first drove past, but then I felt bad and decided to come back and investigate. I stopped the vehicle and asked the driver what was happening. He said he was taking them to a home as they had run away from their families,” the young man told Thanthi TV.
The man then told the driver that he had no right to take them anywhere against their will. When the driver claimed he was simply following procedures, the man called the police. “Then the driver called someone and gave me the phone. That person told me, “Why are you interfering with this? We have called the station, and someone will come from there.” The person on the phone told me to leave the spot,” the man said.
Allegations of organ trade racket
Following the incident, it has now emerged that there have been complaints in the past against St Joseph’s Hospice, with some residents of Palaswaram raising questions over its functioning, alleging that the organisation is involved in an illegal organ trade racket.
Speaking to TNM, one police official close to the investigation confirmed that a case of suspicious death has been registered regarding the dead body in the ambulance, and that investigations were underway. The body has been identified as that of Vijaykumar, a 70-year-old man, who had reportedly died at St Joseph’s Hospice in Tambaram and was being transported to its Palaswaram branch. The investigators, however, refused to comment on allegations of organ trafficking.
Initial investigations reveal that the hospice has branches in several parts of Tamil Nadu, including Nagercoil and Madurai. On Wednesday, the Revenue District Officer in Kancheepuram, officials from the health department and the police visited St Joseph’s Hospice as part of their probe.
Alex Pandian(right) of the hospice talking to the family of a missing person in the presence of a police officer
An official belonging to the Revenue Department told TNM that they are compiling a report based on inputs from the Health Department and the police. They hope to produce this report in two days. However, the RDO admits that there have been oral complaints about the hospice to the previous administration, however no action was taken.
When TNM visited the Palaswaram branch on Thursday, Alex Pandian of St Joseph’s Hospice recounted his version of events.
“We usually pick up elderly men and women in our trucks when we get a call from a hospital or anyone who looks us up online. That day, a friend of the home was getting married so we were transporting vegetables and groceries to the wedding in our ambulance. We received a call to pick up some elderly people nearby, so we took them in the truck as we were nearby anyway. The elderly woman is mentally ill so she was screaming,” he claimed.
When asked about the why the dead body was also being transported with the vegetables and the two senior citizens, Alex claimed that the old man had died just as he was being taken into the truck, and therefore they decided to cover his body in a sari and bring him to the hospice.
However, Jansi, an employee of the St Joseph’s Hospice in Dindigul said that the senior citizens and the corpse were being taken in the truck along with the vegetables, as the truck had gone to collect the vegetables from the Tambaram market when they had received the call from the hospice’s Tambaram branch.
“We get vegetables for free from the Tambaram market, so the vehicle had gone to Tambaram to get the vegetables. That’s when they got the call about the three people, and by the time the driver reached, one of them had died. They wrapped the body in a sari, since we get a lot of saris as donation. And we were transporting them, when the old lady started shouting for help. She didn’t want to go to the home,” Jansi said.
Operating on expired license
But it’s not just the events of Tuesday that St Joseph’s Hospice is being investigated for. According to Thanthi TV reports, residents had alleged that the “recyclable burial pits” used by the hospice were in fact a way to export the bones of the dead and make money out of it.
The ‘cemetery’ is a cemented structure with over 30 vaults to bury those who have died at the hospice. Alex said, “Elderly people die here frequently, sometimes even one in a day. In the winters, the numbers are higher. We don’t know their religion or caste so we bury them in this manner.”
The vaults at the hospice
Pointing to an empty row of vaults, Alex said, “The human body mainly consists of water so once we put them in, the worms eat them and the bodies dehydrate.” He said that the bones that remain are picked up and burnt after a few months. Why? “Because it’s a reusable vault, they have this is Rome and Kerala as well. It’s good for the environment. And moreover, where is the land to bury so many people?”
The vault where the dead body is kept for dehydrating
Alex, however, claimed that the hospice has police permission for the vault burial but declined to show documents, as the founder, Father Thomas was away. The hospice was founded in 2006 and has five branches in Tamil Nadu.
But it appears that St Joseph’s Hospice is continuing to operate with an expired license. Alex argued, “The license for our hospice has expired. We reapplied last September and renewal is under process. Governmental delay is not our fault.”
Residents who live near the hospice told TNM that they often hear screams at night. Markandeyan, a resident said, “We hear screams at night but we usually assume that is because they are mentally ill. We know they care for them but we don’t know what goes on inside. We live inside the village.”
Kali, a farmer, also said that he had witnessed people escaping the home at night. “There is no watchman at night so they are free to leave and run away. They run into the village and we inform the police. But the police inform them and they come and take them back,” he said.
(With inputs from Priyanka Thirumurthy and Ragamalika Karthikeyan)