On 19 April, Raghavendra, a petrol pump owner and resident of the Karnataka Housing Board colony in Bengaluru, was left with the body of his mother-in-law who had died of COVID-19 in RR Multispeciality hospital in the city.
As he scrambled to make arrangements for her funeral, it was a private ambulance driver who approached him with a practical solution — pay Rs 25,000 to transport the body to the nearest crematorium. A grief stricken Raghavendra was unsure of what can be done. The amount being demanded was eight times the usual rate applicable for a three kilometre drive.
‘Most Cannot Afford’
His mother-in-law who had co-morbidities including a kidney dysfunction, was detected with the virus on 19 April and died the same day. She had received one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine just the week before.
When Raghavendra approached the hospital to book an ambulance through Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) he was given a wait time of 24-hours. “Her body would have started stinking by then as there were no ice boxes available. So, I went for the private ambulance,” Raghavendra told The Quint.
In Bengaluru, private ambulance owners have been charging families anywhere between Rs 15,000 to Rs 60,000 for transporting bodies of those succumbing to COVID-19.
“I agreed to pay the amount as I could afford it. But this pricing is unaffordable for most people including some of my relatives,” said Raghavendra, who did not consult any family member about the ambulance charges for fear of causing panic.
Waiting with a deceased relative’s body for an ambulance is harrowing, he rued. “The hospitals are in a hurry to get rid of the bodies to clear space. Most relatives are left with no option but to accept the additional transport costs,” he accused. The hospital had charged him close to Rs 1.25 lakh for treating his mother-in-law over a period of three days.
Other Families Confirm 'Ambulance Black Market'
Another family confirmed the sharp rise in ambulance charges. MS Rajesh, whose friend’s mother passed away on 19 April was asked to pay Rs 15,000 for an ambulance ride. “The ambulance driver allowed the body inside his vehicle only after we paid up. There was no time to bargain as we wanted to cremate her as soon as possible,” said Rajesh, who was present at the burial, to The Quint. Rajesh’s friend Damodar is a resident of Seshadripuram in Bengaluru.
In such a situation one cannot strike a bargain as cremation is the first priority, Rajesh said. “She was like my own mother. We did not want to bargain over her dead body,” he said.
Amit Aradhya, a 30-year-old small businessman who lives in Mathikere told The Quint that his uncle’s family had to pay Rs 60,000 for transportation and burial.
Aradhya’s uncle, 55-year-old RV Prasad, who did not get a bed in any hospital in Bengaluru, had died at his home on 20 April. “We called for an ambulance and the person demanded Rs 60,000 for preserving the body for a night and taking it to the crematorium the next day”.
The family had to bargain. “He finally brought the price down to Rs 40,000 and my cousin sister, the daughter of the deceased uncle, was ready to pawn her gold to raise the funds”. The next morning, 21 April, the driver allegedly refused to take the body to the crematorium.
“He wanted us to pay the entire amount upfront. We did not have the resources to do it at the time. He threatened to leave the body at our doorstep.”Amit Aradhya
After he was paid an additional Rs 10,000, the driver took the body to the crematorium at Peenya, which was just four kilometres away from the family home.
“We called the police for help. They sided with us and we ended up paying a total of just Rs 13,000 for the transportation,” Aradhya said. The family agreed to pay Rs 60,000 at first because they had not managed to get a spot in a morgue for the body, he added. “The bargaining took place under Hebbal flyover at midnight. You can imagine the plight of the daughter who was there in the ambulance,” he rued.
The driver of the ambulance, in a reply to a query from The Times of India, Bengaluru, said that he had only asked for Rs 6,000. “The family misheard the fee as Rs 60,000,” he told TOI-Bengaluru. The Quint has not been able to independently verify this claim. Aradhya, however, said, “He bargained for one night. We could not have misheard what he said”.
Some Ambulances Play Fair
There is a silver lining to this story. The Quint has identified some ambulance service providers in Bengaluru who have pledged to offer services at standard rates.
Get Help Now is an ambulance provider run by alumni of IIT-Bombay and AIIMS Delhi, The News Minute reported. The group has pledged to provide ambulances at nominal rates in Bengaluru, The Quint confirmed. They can be reached at 8899889952.
As per The New Minute, other ambulance providers include Yeshaswini Ambulance which serves in Bengaluru, Mysuru, Shivamogga and Tumakuru (9845083398), Vishwanadh Ambulance (9845734411), Vijayshree Ambulance (8095976797), Nagaraju Ambulance (9972928241) and Suresh Ambulance (9380676231).
The numbers were independently verified by The Quint. The state government also runs an ambulance service which can be reached on the number 108.
However, state provided ambulances are overbooked at the moment, The Quint has gathered. “The BBMP Ambulance service was not available for several hours when we tried to reach out. So we had to approach an ambulance provider who was stationed outside a private hospital,” said Rajesh, whose friend Damodar’s mother had passed away due to COVID-19.