India's land of the living dead

Lal Bihari made countless rounds of police and government offices, but to no avail. Finally he decided to contest elections to draw attention to his problem: he had been declared officially dead.

It took Bihari 16 years to get the government to recognise that he was in fact still alive. Relatives had him falsely proclaimed dead in order to seize his property.

Bihari, who still adds “late” or “mritak” before his name, is today fighting an even tougher battle—to get a life for an estimated 40 000 “dead” people in his home state of Uttar Pradesh.

He founded the Mritak Sangh, or the Association of the Dead, four years ago in an effort to restore dignity to so many blighted lives and to seek compensation from the northern-state government for maintaining false records.

The fight is not easy.
The victims face the same corruption and indifference which led to their plight in the first case and, deprived of all their possessions, no longer have any resources for legal action.

“I myself had gone to government officials to tell them I am alive. I went to police stations, to revenue courts and even met politicians with the only request to recognise me as a living person,” Bihari says.

He says he was declared dead in 1984 by revenue officials in Azamgarh, 300km south-east of Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow, after his uncle connived with officials to grab his property.

He discovered his administrative status as dead when he went to officials to try to find out how his uncle had managed to get 16 acres of Bahari’s land transferred into his own name.

Bihari employed novel ways to get his name on official records, notably by picking fights so that the police would file a complaint against him ensuring his name entered police files.

But he says the police quickly saw through his game plan and refused to register cases against him.

After much frustration, Bihari hit on the idea of standing for election to draw attention to his misery.

“I contested two elections to tell the world that I am alive and not dead. I lost both the elections but won the bigger battle,” he says.

After a 16-year court battle Bihari finally got his true status back in 2000.

He is still demanding 200-million rupees ($5-million) in compensation from the government for his years of torment.

Others, such as Mahboob Hasan (68) who found out that he had “died” in 1991, have been less fortunate.

“My son grabbed my property by producing a fake death certificate. I have met officials but the government still refuses to recognise me as alive,” he says.

“The village head has recognised me as alive, but the revenue officials still consider me a dead man.”

The former schoolteacher says even the state chief minister was aghast to hear of his story about how his son sold off the property and migrated to the Gulf trading and tourism hub of Dubai.

Victims such as Hasan are rendered homeless when their property is taken over by relatives, who often pay as little as 50 rupees ($1) or a bottle of liquor to obtain a fake death certificate from a corrupt minor official.

“They feel deceived by their loved ones. They are poor and do not have enough money to get a square meal a day, forget about filing court cases,” says lawyer SK Mishra, who has represented several living-dead people in the court.

Meanwhile, the association has managed to get some funding from opposition leader Vijay Pathak.

“This is a testimony to the prevailing corruption in government offices. Conniving relatives bribe corrupt officials to record the false death certificates and then grab property,” says Pathak, of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Those who have lost their property cannot afford to pay bribes or even fees for their cases,” he adds.

The state’s revenue minister says the government is trying to tackle the issue.

“We know injustice is done to them. Orders have been issued to punish the officials who have deprived these people of their human dignity,” says minister Ambika Chaudhry.—AFP

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