Friday, 14 August 2009

A Case of schizophrenia at sea

Edward D’Cunha, a Goregaon resident, joined SCI as a trainee in 1993. In 1997, following a schizophrenic episode on board a vessel, he underwent medical treatment and rejoined the company. D’Cunha says he was subsequently forced to quit SCI in 2000 after more episodes; he has now moved the courts, asking that his job be given back to him. He wants to be reinstated either as a Second Officer on a SCI offshore supply vessel or be given an office job.

In the initial stages of the disease years ago, D’Cunha often saw ghosts during the day, suffered memory lapses and was paranoid about stalkers in a crowd. His psychiatrist (and founder of Maitri, a support group for schizophrenia) Dr. Harish Shetty diagnosed schizophrenia. Undergoing treatment, D’Cunha managed the library system at ABN AMRO’s Business Process Outsourcing centre in Lower Parel for a while.

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that manifests itself in the patient experiencing a distortion of reality. All senses may get affected: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions or disorganized speech and thinking with significant social or occupational dysfunction are not uncommon. Caused by chemical (dopamine) imbalance in the brain, it is a disease hidden from public view: India alone has 7 million sufferers. The only way out is prolonged medical treatment and counselling, which helps.

Edward D’Cunha has now moved the High Court in Mumbai, claiming that SCI forced him to resign in 2000: his father Stanley had earlier claimed that Edward signed a resignation letter when he was suffering a schizophrenic episode. Justices Ranjana Desai and Amjad Sayed have reportedly asked SCI orally whether it could reconsider its decision and accommodate D'Cunha, who had suffered repeated episodes before his departure from the company almost a decade ago.

D'Cunha had pleaded with the Maharashtra disability commissioner in 2002, asking that SCI should take him back because it had not complied with the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities Act. The plea was dismissed by the disability commissioner in 2006 on the grounds that Edward had resigned voluntarily. However, Pradeep Havnur, Edward’s lawyer, says that the law was not followed in this case and that D'Cunha was incapable of taking a decision on his resignation at the time. Under the PWD Act, mental illness is treated as a disability. Havnur told the Times of India recently, "The Act has a specific provision that bars discrimination against a person employed with the government who acquires a disability during service.''.

Under such circumstances, the law says that employers must shift the person who has a disability to another post with the same pay scale and service benefits in case he is found unable to perform his present duties because of disability contracted during service. If no such job is available, he should be kept on a supernumerary post until a suitable post is available or he attains the age of superannuation.

Many in the industry will sympathise with the D’Cunha family here, but it does not need to be said that a mentally medically unfit Second Officer can well be a huge hazard to safety at sea. The solution may turn out to be alternate office job that D’Cunha is pleading for, but that is for the courts to decide now. Regardless, this case may well set a precedent for the rights of Indian seamen who develop a disability during their employment: physical or mental.



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