Crematoriums, corpses and chaos

Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat struggles with rising deaths in second wave


April 24, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

With the sharp spike in number of deaths everyday due to second wave of Covid-19, crematorium grounds in Delhi struggle to keep up, forcing relatives of the victims to wait for several hours at the site for their turn to conduct the last rites.

“First we had to run a lot to keep him alive, now after his death also we have to struggle to arrange the cremation,” says a young man as he was waiting at Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat, for his turn to conduct the final rites of his relative who had succumbed to Covid-19. “We are helpless because we have no choice to bring the body here for last rites, otherwise we would have taken the body to Haridwar,” he adds.

India recorded world’s highest daily tally of over 346,000 fresh coronavirus infections reported on Saturday, taking the cumulative caseload to 16.6 million, while the number of deaths reported jumped to a record of over 2,600 in the last 24 hours and total to nearly 190,000 since the beginning of the pandemic last March.

Family members prepare for the last rites of a Covid-19 victim in Delhi (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Delhi also recorded its highest ever single-day fatalities – 306 people died on Friday as more than 26,000 fresh cases were logged. Though a number of burial grounds and crematoriums have specially earmarked slots for Covid-19 victims, the rush of bodies has surpassed their capacity to deal with it. This has led to long waits for families of the victims as they have little choice than to sit with the body at the cremation ground or even outside since there is no space even for ambulances inside.

Distressed over the death of a loved one, the waiting and lack of clear information makes the family members enraged. The authorities have totally mismanaged the whole situation, says the young man as he waits in a queue to get a receipt which allots him a time slot for conducting the final rites.

A woman carrying wood for the funeral pyre (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

“There is complete mismanagement here. People are waiting in line since 4 am. So many people have been waiting for so long, yet they cannot get the receipt. They are not even getting wood for burning the bodies. We are facing so many difficulties since morning. I have been waiting here for three hours but there are people I know who have been since 2:30 in the morning. The procedure is very simple. They give you the receipt, and then registration happens after which you are allowed to take the body inside for last rites. There is just one man sitting inside giving receipts to so many and he is working at his own pace,” says another man waiting at the crematorium.

The anger is visible across faces of nearly everyone waiting in the queue, who say that the management of the cremation has been chaotic. “They are not giving us the receipts. First, they ask us to wait in one queue and after sometime they ask us to move to some other. We don’t know if the staff is actually working or not. I brought the body from LNJP hospital over three hours ago, but they have not given me the receipt. Whenever my turn comes at the counter, the person tells me that this is not the right queue and points me somewhere else and when I go there, they close the window. They have been doing this since morning,’’ says another man waiting desperately for a receipt.

Delhi registered a record 306 deaths due to Covid-19 on Friday (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Though most of the people waiting in the queues are wearing masks, the rush and confusion has led to a fairly large crowd, with each trying to jump the queue to get to window first. “People will only follow Covid-19 protocols once the officials here do their work properly and in an organised manner. That’s how there will be lesser crowd,” says another person waiting in the queue.

The long delays and confusion in what’s a straight forward process lead people to suspect corruption even at crematoriums. “All the staff members here are corrupt as I have seen people get receipts immediately and without joining the queues,” he adds.

Another man joins in and says the situation in hospitals and crematoriums is alike as even though he had the receipt of the crematorium, he had not get managed to get the body from the hospital. “We have been there at the Hinduja hospital since 8 am to get the dead body. They told us that to save time in cremation, I should go and get a receipt from the crematorium and by the time I get the receipt, they would send the body here. However, I have been holding on to the receipt for three hours and I haven’t received the body yet,” he says.

Almost 50 bodies are cremated everyday at Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Umesh Sharma, a priest who has been performing last rites at Nigambodh Ghat for the past three decades, says he has not seen anything like this in his life. “The number of bodies that are coming here are many more than even in 2020 when the pandemic broke. We get over 50 bodies of Covid-19 victims every day. Nowadays, seeing the rush, I have to start at 7 am and continue with my work till midnight, and somedays till even 3 in the morning. Since the Ghat is open round the clock, there is no fixed time when the bodies come,” says the priest.

Sometime, the rush for funerals is so high that the cremations are done on open ground in the crematorium, instead of the normal slots where cremations are conducted.

Due to the load at crematoriums people have to wait for several hours for cremation (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

Akram, an ambulance driver who has been carrying bodies from Shivain Multispeciality Hospital in Ghaziabad, says he has never seen such a large number of bodies in a day. He adds that normally, he did not have to carry even a single body in a week to the funeral grounds, but now he has to make over 30 trips per week and he is not the only one for this duty in that hospital. “You can imagine how serious the situation is right now. Sometimes it gets difficult for me to observe my Ramadan properly due to the huge rush of bodies which need urgent cremations,” he says.

Though Sharma says he is not worried about contracting the disease as he takes all necessary precautions, he complains about total lack of support from the government for the personnel of the crematorium, including priests like himself. “Over the past year, many persons working here have been infected but they have not received any help from the government. Whatever we earn is through donations from the people who come for the last rites. That is how we somehow eke out a living. The government should at least provide us with an insurance cover. If something happens to us who will think of our families?” he pleads.



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