Unseen Warriors of COVID: 20 hour shifts, measly wages; how Delhi's crematorium workers are surviving a pandemic
Firstpost spoke to some of these workers to enquire about their working conditions and how they are coping with the situation. Here are edited excerpts
Editor's note: As the second wave of coronavirus infections ravages parts of India, millions of front-line workers and citizens are caught up in the middle, providing their services to distressed families on one hand while trying to cope themselves on the other. This is part five of a series profiling the stories of these people.
One of the many reasons the second wave of coronavirus has been more devastating for India is the significantly higher death rate as compared to the first wave of the pandemic. Crematoriums in most big cities of the country are overburdened to the extent that they are now forced to turn away many families waiting to conduct the last rites of their loved ones.
In the national capital, the administration has been forced to build makeshift crematoriums at public places, as Delhi is running out of space to cremate its dead. Public parks and other empty spaces are also being utilised for cremations.
At Sarai Kale Khan, a small crematorium with a capacity of 31 pyres has been expanded to accommodate over 100 bodies at a time. Workers who are manning these crematoriums are working around the clock, sometimes in shifts that exceed 20 hours at a stretch. Firstpost spoke to some of these workers to enquire about their working conditions and how they are coping with the situation. Here are excerpts from an interview with Nilam, a resident of Delhi who is currently working at the Sarai Kale Khan Crematorium:
How long has it been since you started working here?
It has been close to 15 days. The priest conducts the cremation, we assist him in burning the bodies.
How many corpses do you burn every day?
Every day we burn around 60-70 bodies. Before the pandemic, we would get 6-8 bodies a day. Now we’re getting between 50 and 60 bodies per day. But today's count was lesser than usual
How are you coping with the situation; did you find it scary?
Yes, initially I was quite scared. I couldn't sleep for three days after watching so many bodies lined up for cremation, and how they were burning. I was distraught. Many workers ran away and didn't come back after watching the bodies burn.
Do you live with your family?
Yes, I do. I go home at 10 or 11 in the night. I clean up thoroughly then go and meet my family.
What kind of precautions do you have to take?
We use double masks and stay cautious. We have been given gloves to wear, we use them.
Do you feel like quitting this job?
I have thought about it but then there's no one else to do this job. So I have to do it.
Aren’t you scared for your family?
Yes there's that risk, that is why I take precautions.
How much is your remuneration?
We don't force anyone (to pay us). We get by with the donations. Sometimes we get Rs 50-100 (from the families of the dead). Sometimes we don't get anything. That's fine. I get it that these people are distressed and some can't even afford to pay. We try our best to help them. We don't force them to pay. Sometimes they don't have anyone to do the last rites. We help them with that too.
Do you feel this situation is the government's fault?
I don't feel it's the government's fault. Resources don't reach the people, there's black marketing. People are dying waiting for oxygen cylinders. I pray to God that this situation improves soon and people can return to leading normal lives.
While workers such as Nilam are working around the clock to make space for those who’ve succumbed to the pandemic, their efforts are still falling short. Deepak Gupta, who lost his brother-in-law to COVID 19, told Firstpost that he had to run from pillar to post for space at Delhi’s cremation grounds. “Even after we did, we had to wait for hours to perform my brother’s last rites," he said.
Authorities have reportedly cut down trees in city parks for funeral pyres. The municipal corporations are desperately searching for more sites to cater to the additional rush as several crematoriums are operating on a day-and-night basis and are still unable to meet the requirement.
Relatives of the dead have also been asked to help with cremations by piling wood and assisting in rituals. One of them told Firstpost, "The situation is very grim, the government and the health care system has failed us. People are still not taking the lockdown seriously even with rising deaths in India. I am here for the funeral of a family member and I would like to urge people to stay indoors."
Delhi has the sixth-highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India. The city has recorded 12,481 COVID-19 cases and 347 deaths over the last 24 hours. Medical oxygen, intensive care unit (ICU) beds and life-saving medicines are all in short supply. And so are ambulances.
We also spoke to Rajender Kumar, a hearse driver from Delhi who ferries the dead from mortuaries to cremation grounds. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How many bodies do you ferry every day?
It varies. Usually, it's 10-15 each day, but sometimes it goes up to 20 as well. There are fewer rounds to the crematorium in the evenings.
Do you feel tired seeing so many corpses every day?
We do get tired but what to do? I have been doing this work for a year. But I can't just go home. There are few drivers here, 4-5 of our colleagues have tested positive recently. So we have to manage the workload among the 5-6 ambulance drivers who are left.
What about the high prices charged by the ambulances?
It’s the private ambulances that are charging exorbitant rates. We don't know so much about those. This is a government ambulance. Ours is free of cost.
Did you ever feel like quitting?
No. Young people are dying. It's a terrible state of affairs. When I look at crematoriums, I do feel the injustice of what's happening around us. But who do I talk to about this?
Do you feel this is the government’s failure?
Government, what to say? It is in its place. What is happening is happening. I used to get emotional when 10-12 bodies were piled into my ambulance. Like where am I and why can't I do anything?