Pawan Kumar stands with a bunch of colleagues who work as sevadaar, also called dom, at a crematorium in the national capital. “Humare pas mask nahi hai. Gloves, sanitiser nahi hai. Joote nahi hain or hume koi darr bhi nahi hai (Neither we been provided with mask, gloves, shoes or sanitiser nor we have any fear). I don’t have any problem with the civic authority or government. The only thing that breaks our heart is that despite working day and night, directly dealing with the bodies of corona victims and Covid-positive relatives and risking our lives, we are not considered corona warriors or frontline workers.”
“For the last one month, most of us have not visited their home or met anyone in our family. Those who are going home isolate themselves in a room. They enter the house from the backdoor. Some get their food from the balcony tied up in a rope or just visit home to listen to the voice of their wife, parents and children. We are performing free last rites of unattended bodies and helping families in need but what is the government doing for us,” says the 31-year-old.
Like Kumar, there are at least 3,500-4,000 unsung heroes in the national capital’s cremation grounds, qabristan (burial ground) and graveyards who are silently working while risking their lives and exposing themselves to the deadly virus without any recognition, compensation or any health care facility. There are around 28 crematoriums, cemeteries and qabristans in the national capital. 15-20 crematorium workers have lost their lives to Covid-19 so far with the last rites of many of them performed at these ghats and graveyards.
Sadly, these unrecognised Covid warriors are neither included in the AAP government’s `1 crore compensation scheme nor are they being provided any health insurance, compensation and healthcare facilities by the municipal corporations and government.
While the government and civic authorities are claiming full health safety and security being provided to the workers at shamshan ghats and graveyards, the ground reality shows a different picture.
During a visit to the cremation grounds like Nigam Bodh Ghat, Lodhi Road, Kalkaji, Sarai Kale Khan Cremation ground and ITO qabristan, The Morning Standard found that not a single worker had a surgical or N95 mask, PPE kit, hand gloves and sanitisers.
Suman Gupta, who heads the Badi Panchayat Vaishya Beese Agarwal Committee, an NGO which manages the Nigam Bodh Ghat, said, “We are providing masks, safety kits, PPE kits to workers and vaccinations have been done.”
However, the reporter saw that from sevadaars to Karam Kandi pandits, many were not wearing proper masks. Most had covered their face with a scarf or a handkerchief. Most of these workers are not vaccinated and requested priority in vaccinations. Some did not want to talk on record fearing for their job.
Nigam Bodh Ghat is one of the biggest cremation grounds in Delhi, located in Kashmiri Gate with six electric furnaces (three reserved for Covid victims), about 120 funeral platforms for funerals of Covid and non-Covid deaths. There are about 150 workers including pandits, labourers at the ghat. Two pandits at this ghat have died of Covid -19.
The workers say that they see at least 100-150 deaths a day. The numbers have crossed 200 in recent days and all the bodies from the nearby hospitals come here for final rites.
Monu, 36, who is working at the Nigam Bodh Ghat since childhood, says, “People are scared to even think of crematoriums but for me this place was home. I played here, swan here. Every day we learnt a lesson about life. But for the first time, I am scared for my life and family because there are lives solely dependent on me. Things are different now. I have never seen bodies queuing up for funerals like this.”
Monu, who is a sevadaar, says, “Watching so many deaths daily is tough. I am depressed and mentally tired. I have not seen my daughter and wife for a month. I don’t have a smartphone, so I cannot even talk to them via a video call. I am risking my life working here but the government cannot even give us credit and compensation. What will happen to my family if I am gone?”
Shriram, a pandit, says, “We are not only performing last rites but also helping people in performing last rites for free. But our families are being discriminated against by neighbours as I work here. The Dhabas outside have stopped selling food to us and asked us not to go near their stall.”
“The shoes I am wearing were given to me by a family who came here for last rites of a relative,” he says.
Shriram lives in Haryana and says he will visit his home once things get normal. “I cannot put my family at risk. I am staying here. Food and water are being provided by NGOs and volunteers give us gur-chana which we eat in the night.” A 46-year-old sevadaar, who did not wish to be named, said, “I live in Bhalaswa. There are seven members in my family. I go home daily to escape the noise of crying relatives and the crowd. But, I can’t sleep peacefully without having alcohol. Most workers here are from scheduled castes and have been doing this job for generations. We face caste discrimination at ghats and in our society. We don’t want this life for our children. Many workers suffer from TB, lung-related diseases. This coronavirus is another trauma for us.”
“I have two requests. One for the people at least after this pandemic stop the caste discrimination and respect everyone as we sevadaars are carrying bodies, lighting pyres, performing last rites and immersing ashes in the Yamuna in these difficult times. Secondly, I request CM Arvind Kejriwal to include us in the Rs 1 crore compensation scheme, provide us some health insurance and schemes for our children and family as we too are risking our lives in the frontline,” he says.
Mohammad Shamin, the caretaker at the Ahle-Islam Qabristan at ITO one of the biggest Muslim graveyard, has not met his family since April 13. His family lives in a staff quarter near the graveyard. He and two other staff members have created a makeshift/temporary jhuggi and are living there since April.
“For the last one month, I have not seen my daughters. Chahe main kitna bhi koshish karlu himmat se rehne ki, lekin jab meri betiyan phone kar ke poochhti hain ki Abbu ghar kab aaoge, meri rooh kaamp jaati hai (While I try to stay strong, my heart just breaks when my daughters call and ask when will you come home).”
“I miss their smiles and giggles. I have to lie every day to them to console them because they don’t want me to work during these times. They fear that I will also get Covid and die,” says a tearful Shamin.
“Many workers who used to work here left fearing Covid. People who come for final rites don’t even want to touch the body. They say take the money and do all the rites. We sometimes open the PPE kit to show their face for one last time, we read namaz and recite prayers. We touch the body risking our lives. We also help the poor perform the last rites for free. We are not earning anything in these times. Some people give money, some don’t,” he adds.
He says, “The hardest part is despite our hard work people don’t respect us. They say you work here so you have to do what we say, lift the body, do this and that without thinking that we are also human. I have buried hundreds of Covid victims in the past month and have been working for the last year. So, I request people to respect us. We also ask people to take this disease seriously. Many are saying Covid is nothing but ask us who are fighting death and life daily.”
When asked about safety measures, he says that as the ITO cemetery is always in the eyes of the media, we are being provided with all kits, masks, PPE kits from Waqf Board and NGOs. He also wants the government to include them in its compensation scheme as they are also frontline workers risking their lives. He adds that every time he raises this matter the authorities warn him saying he will be replaced and will be fired from his job.
Shamin adds that the ITO cemetery has seen fewer bodies in recent days as burial grounds for Covid bodies have been created in other places like Okhla, Madanpur Khadar, Seelampur. At the Lodhi Road Crematorium. Om Dev, who cremates at least 50-60 bodies a day, is facing similar issues. He feels broken mentally and wants to meet his family, hug his daughters and hold his newborn boy. For the three months, he has not visited his home or met his family who live in Uttar Pradesh.
“I have been working here for over a decade now and cremated hundreds of bodies without fear, but this time it is haunting me. Now, I just want to go home and hug my wife, daughter and newborn baby boy before anything bad happens to me. I just want to hold them because I don’t know whether I will live or not,” he says.
Dev was about to visit his family in April but he could not get leave as his boss, the senior pandit at the crematorium, died of Covid-19. “We have been working here since childhood but have never seen a situation like this with bodies piling up for last rites. I am distraught, haunted, mentally broken and physically tired seeing 40-50 bodies a day,” says Dev.
Another pandit at Kalkaji Crematorium says, “I go home twice a day to get food. I stand downstairs as my wife sends down the Tiffin tied to a rope via the balcony from the third floor. I can’t even visit my ailing father who is in a hospital,” says Bharat Sharma. “Why many crematoriums have been given to NGOs? They eat money and the staffs risk their lives and get nothing. People are complaining that pandits are asking huge money for antim sanskars. We don’t get salaries and are risking our lives. We too have a family.” Sharma lives in a joint family with about 15 members in the Govindpuri area.
“More than a dozen people working in the cremation grounds have lost their lives to Covid-19. What have the government done for us? Where is the `1 crore compensation? We are not being even provided masks, sanitisers and kits from the MCD. After the pandemic, I am going to file a case in court seeking justice for the workers who lost their lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
With Covid death count rising, the crematorium workers across the city are working tirelessly risking their lives on the frontlines. However, they are still unrecognised, underpaid, uninsured and unvaccinated, reports Gayathri Mani