At Nigambodh Ghat, Delhi’s largest and busiest crematorium, Avdhesh Sharma has not had a moment’s rest.
Mr. Sharma has been in charge of the facility, located by the banks of the Yamuna, one of India’s holiest rivers, for years. He is accustomed to seeing death up close on a daily basis.
But nothing prepared him for the mounting mortality rate of India’s devastating second wave of COVID-19, which has brought body after body through the crematorium’s gates in the past month.
“We have been working round the clock, burning about 125 bodies a day. It is exhausting,” he said. “There are unending queues. The bereaved are completely harried, pushing us to work faster. But it’s not possible to do cremations in a hurry. There are multiple pressures. On the worst days, we wanted to run away.”
As India logs more than 4,000 deaths a day – the real death count, according to experts, is several times higher, going by the number of cremations and burials taking place every day – the spotlight has turned to the growing struggle of the country’s overworked and underpaid crematorium workers.
The national government considers them front-line workers. But as crematoriums work overtime, the workers say they remain unseen. There is now a growing call to recognize their back-breaking work and offer them the same health and safety protections and priority vaccinations as other front-line workers and health care staff.
There are deeper, systemic issues as well. Last month, crematorium workers in Bengaluru threatened to strike after not being paid for a year. Many workers complained of low wages and long hours. For the men who build the pyres, tend the flames and gather the ashes, the risk of exhaustion is even greater.
“They can’t even wear a PPE suit or gloves, as it would stick to their skin because of the heat. All they can do is wear a mask. Honestly, their fate is in the hands of God,” Mr. Sharma said.
Infectious disease experts say there is no risk of contracting COVID-19 from the smoke of a funeral pyre, but workers must wear personal protective equipment while handling the bodies or coming in close contact with bereaved family members, who may be infected.
Authorities have begun to take note of the growing stresses on them. The Gujarat government, for example, announced a decision “to consider crematorium staffers as #CoronaWarriors and extend all benefits with effect from April 1, 2020, including Rs.25-lakh compensation to the kin in case of death of any crematorium employee due to Corona infection.”
Mr. Sharma said he finally convinced the local civic body that his facility simply can’t handle so many bodies, “so now 30 per cent of the load has been redirected to other crematoriums.”
As burial sites run out of space, and parks and parking lots turn into mass cremation grounds, officials are directing hospitals to stagger the release of bodies and increase the capacity at funeral facilities across the country.
This week, more than 100 bodies suspected of being COVID-19 victims washed up on the banks of the Ganges in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Dozens of unclaimed bodies were found buried along the river. The high cost of cremation or a shortage of wood may have compelled some families to dump the bodies in the water.
Responding to the large number of deaths and reports of mishandling of bodies, the National Human Rights Commission sent an advisory Friday to the central and state governments asking them to protect “the dignity and rights of the dead” by expanding funeral facilities and providing protective gear, priority vaccination and fair pay to crematorium and burial ground staff, “so they can perform their duty without any fear or risk.”
Calcutta-based activist Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman said that with waiting lines at crematoriums getting longer, there is an increasingly urgent need to equip crematorium workers – many of whom come from marginalized communities – with appropriate workwear, hire backup staff so they are not overworked and conduct regular testing, as they are exposed regularly to COVID-19 patients.
“They are working 14 hours a day with little protective equipment. My team of volunteers have been trying to arrange for face shields for them. But we need to figure out a PPE kit that can maintain their body temperature as they work around fire and heat all day,” she said.
Sunil Sharma, who works at an electric crematorium in Noida, in Uttar Pradesh, said he is disappointed at the apathy toward crematorium staff. “From [a prepandemic normal of] 10 to 12 bodies a day, we are cremating 70 to 80. We are on our feet from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., as each cremation takes 1½ hours. We earn about 6000 to 7,000 rupees [$100 to $115] a month. A few of the staff members fell ill, too, but they popped a few pills and got back to work. We should at least be provided health insurance and vaccination,” Mr. Sharma said.
In the past week, new citizen initiatives have begun to draw public attention to their plight.
The Good Food Project was launched by friends Nandini Ghosh and Shray Gupta in Delhi, who were concerned about the workers’ well-being. “We began by visiting crematoriums in Delhi to see what they needed. Some of the workers said they hadn’t eaten all day. Many didn’t have masks or access to sanitizers. We also realized there are larger issues at hand. A large number of workers are not vaccinated. Many are resistant to getting vaccinated,” Mr. Gupta said.
The duo quickly launched a fundraiser, which garnered tremendous support within a day. Volunteers from across the world joined in. The team started by distributing fresh meals twice a day to crematorium workers, with 20 volunteers fanning out across Delhi. Along with the meals they distributed safety kits with masks, gloves, sanitizers and PPE. They are now trying out similar initiatives in other cities.
In Bengaluru, painter Poornima Sukumar has been travelling across the city with a friend to supply crematorium workers with safety kits. “Sadly, many workers are not aware of the safety measures they should be taking while handling bodies of COVID victims. They work late into the night – there is a huge backlog of bodies. A few electric crematorium machines have even broken down due to overuse,” Ms. Sukumar said she found on her visits.
With overburdened crematoriums and a shortage of staff, initiatives such as the Cremation Project in Pune, in Maharashtra state, have sprung up to help make a gruelling job at least bearable. The project has set up a help centre at a city hospital. Its members ensure bodies are taken to the mortuary quickly and, to avoid overcrowding, bring them to cremation sites only when a slot opens up. They work for eight days and are then sent into quarantine.
“The local officials requested us to help out. We try to streamline the process. We also help arrange cremations in case families are unable to step out of home isolation or are overseas,” said Naresh Karpe, an investment consultant who leads the project. “There is so much grief when someone loses a family member. We are trying to minimize the sadness by offering a dignified cremation.”
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