The unceasing cries, fear, perpetual ambulance sirens and desperate calls from those seeking burial of their loved ones every hour of the day still haunt Mohd Shamim, caretaker of the Jadid Qabristan Ahle Islam, one of Delhi’s largest graveyards located at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, ITO. A year since the second and the most lethal wave of the Covid-19 pandemic struck the national capital, the memories of those painful still haunt those who had to endure the passing of their loved ones.
The equally affected have been those who work in graveyards, crematoriums and carry bodies in ambulances. These people actually lay people who died of Covid to rest. As the Covid has shown signs of rise in recent weeks, however with lesser severity, The Morning Standard meets some of such people to know how the morbid 2021 left its scars on their mind and how they have been doing their duties now.
“Last year during the second wave, I lived in a jhuggi which I made inside Qabristan and cooked food by myself, so that my family would not get affected if I caught the Covid infection. It was this very time of the year. The fear pervaded in every soul, as the intensity of morbidity was overbearing. I had never seen such a humanitarian crisis in my life. People were running from pillar to post to get oxygen for the gasping patients. There was a constant flow of bodies to the graveyard. All these memories still scare me and many a time, I wake up suddenly at night with disturbing nightmares,” recalls Shamim, 39.
A total of 13,955 deaths were reported in Delhi within a period of over two and a half months from mid-April to June last year, as per the figures cited by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. People waited for days with the bodies stacked up near crematoriums for the funeral of their dear ones. Shamim says that nearly 100 dead bodies came per day to the graveyard during the 2021 Covid wave. “But now, we are receiving three-four bodies a day,” he says.
Sharing a heart-warming tale, he says that there was a man who died of Covid and was buried here, since then his dog resides at Qabristan and refuses to go from there. Another worker at the graveyard, Rahul Paswan, who hails from Bhagalpur (Bihar) and digs graves, said that he wants to work at a different place now, after what he saw during the second wave. “It took me four months to get out of that frame of mind and now I am looking for daily wage work,” said Paswan, 23, who makes Rs 350 a day at the graveyard.
Reminiscing the scale of fear that the second wave had on people, Mohd Wasim, who leads the funeral prayers at the Qabristan, said that people were so fear-struck that they would leave the body of their loved one at the graveyard and see the burial at the hands of the graveyard staff online via WhatsApp.
“We used to earn by dividing Rs 1,000 among five people per dead body during the second wave,” said Wasim. There were many others like Shamim and Wasim, who worked tirelessly during that time. Neeraj Mahour, an ambulance driver who carried the Covid-infected dead bodies to Punjabi Bagh Shamshan Bhumi, recalls that people would not even give him water in the sizzling heat because they feared that they would catch infection. “I used to take three tablets of Paracetamol in a day, so that I did not get tired carrying dead bodies to the crematorium. But the government did not consider any of us as frontline warriors,” complains Mahour.
Mahour’s complaint rings true as one takes stock of the situation in the capital during the morbid middle months of 2021. The sound of ambulance sirens could be heard on every road throughout the day and night. Hospitals in the city were full. There was ‘murderous’ crisis running out of oxygen cylinders and crucial medicines, including remdesivir to treat those with severe symptoms. People were dying in their houses, on roads and in cars due to lack of beds in hospitals. The dead bodies were piling up at the crematoriums and burial grounds in Delhi. The waiting hours to get the dead body cremated or buried was three-four hours in many places, at the least.
According to a report, published by Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development, “The second wave of Covid was India’s worst tragedy since partition (1947).” It was reported that four people were dying every minute in the capital city during the second wave. “My wife told me why can’t I sit back at home for a few days or change my profession? Jaan Hai To Jahan Hai (Only if you are alive, the world is yours),” said Krishan Pal, who sells items related to the rituals for last rites at Nigam Bodh Ghat — the crematorium along the Yamuna banks, which sees the highest load of dead in the city. “The fear was such that I thought of opening a food vending shop to change my profession after what I saw during the second wave. This was despite the fact that I was getting much higher profit running my generations-old shop,” said Pal. He added that he would earn Rs 70,000-80,000 per day during the wave, but now his daily income is just Rs 8,000-9,000 a day.
Avdhesh Kumar, 42, funeral supervisor, Nigam Bodh Ghat, said that they cremated almost 250 bodies in a day during the second wave, while the actual total capacity of the crematorium is 150 bodies a day. “Scores of ambulances were in line carrying dead bodies and to accommodate the situation, 40-45 platforms were added to fast-track the rituals,” said Kumar, who has been working for the past 20 years at the Ghat. His generations have been into this work. “At that time last year, I would just wish that I too had that advantage of working from home to avoid the first-hand experience of those scenes of death and disaster everywhere. It can never be forgotten,” said Kumar.
Long working hours, lack of sleep, mental agony, fear of working in hostile situations and not being able to eat well took a toll on their lives and families. For Sanjay Rajoura, it took two-three months after the second wave receded to get out of that mental trauma. “I used to work for 16 hours a day during the second wave, now I work only for eight hours a day,” said Rajoura, lighting a bidi stick. Sanjay is working as a person who bathes the dead body before cremation.
In a situation where people became jobless and had nothing to eat, Pramod Sharma, who hails from Karnal (Haryana), worked as a security guard at Nigam Bodh Ghat. Sharma said that whatever rations he got during the second wave, he distributed it among poor and needy people living in his neighbourhood, as there was an economic crisis unfolding among the service providers.
Suman Gupta, chief convener, Nigam Bodh Ghat, said that nobody from the Ghat left the job at that time and all people worked in multiple shifts to bear the burden of the unusual situation. “People working in crematoriums should be given the status of Covid frontline workers as well for they risk their lives and work hard as much as other front-liners,” said Gupta.
At another busy crematorium at Punjabi Bagh, which gets most of the load from south and west Delhi areas, it was a similar story. “I didn’t even get time to eat food two times a day, people were constantly screaming at me and telling me to do the funeral first and then eat,” said Sachin Mishra, who works as a sevadar at the crematorium. Groups of people working for social causes used to arrange food, water, fruit, masks and sanitiser for the people working inside the crematorium. Vinod Sharma, a priest, said that people from neighbouring places used to send food and water for them during the second wave. “For three consecutive months of the second wave, people sent us lassi and fruit so that we don’t fall sick of the heat and exhaustion,” said Sharma.
Mukesh Kumar, in-charge of the Punjabi Bagh crematorium, said that during the second wave, his staff worked day and night. “We used to be at the crematorium by 5 in the morning and then worked till late night. It took me many months to come out of the sadness and weariness of the second wave and to go back to a normal life,” said Kumar.
Jitender Singh Shunty, president, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Seva Dal, whose team cremated over 4,000 unclaimed dead bodies during the second wave and was conferred with Padma Shri award for his social service in 2021, said, “I used to cremate unclaimed bodies and those bodies also which were abandoned by the family members,” said Singh, 59. A short film titled Pehchan, the Unscripted Show, based on the life of Shunty is slated to release in July, on Netflix.