Bhopal: The rhythmic digging sound of the JCB machine tears through the quiet of Bhopal’s Jahangirabad Kabristan. The city is racing against time. The overwhelmed graveyard has to make space for more Covid bodies. The second Covid-19 wave is bringing around 28-30 Covid bodies here daily, up from four during the first wave.
“We are running out of space very fast. It takes around three-four hours to dig a grave. And because it’s summer, the sand is hard, so it cannot be done manually,” said a staff member at the graveyard, who did not wish to be named. The number of people working here had to be increased from three to 12, all of whom are toiling till at least 2 am every day.
The new Covid spike across India has not just exposed the shortages in country’s healthcare system but also its crematorium and graveyard infrastructure.
On 4 April 2021, Rehan Golden — who manages the graveyard — had written to the Bhopal collector requesting more land be allotted to cater to the increasing number of bodies. Golden had previously raised the same concern with the collector on 24 September 2020 as well. He is yet to receive a response to either.
If graveyards are running out of space, Bhopal’s crematoriums aren’t faring any better either. They are rapidly running out of wood.
Truckloads of recently-arrived wood wait outside the Bhadbhada crematorium in Bhopal. It is 10 am and unlit pyres are waiting on one side, as workers chop logs of wood on the other to prepare for the next round of Covid corpses. A grey blanket of fresh ash covers the area.
Bhadbhada is one of the five places where Covid-19 bodies from Bhopal and neighbouring areas are laid to rest. But since mid-March, a huge daily spike has been reported.
“When Covid-19 first hit, we had created a special zone for 18-20 Covid bodies to be cremated daily. But owing to the second wave, that area began falling short [of space], so we made another zone a month ago that can cater to 30 bodies a day. Despite that, we are barely managing the daily load and are forced to cremate some bodies directly on the ground,” Arun Choudhary, president, Bhadbhada crematorium, told ThePrint.
Official data on Covid casualties fall far short of the numbers shared by crematoriums and graveyard officials.
On 26 April, Subhash Nagar crematorium – with a capacity of burning 36 bodies a day – cremated 38 Covid bodies. On the same day, Bhadbhada Crematorium cremated 87 Covid bodies — far beyond its capacity of 50 per day. The Jahangirabad Kabristan buried nine people that day who had succumbed to the disease. However, the state medical bulletin for that day reported just three Covid deaths in Bhopal.
The average daily funeral figures in pre-Covid times, at Bhopal’s crematoriums and graveyards, were as low as 10 and one, respectively.
The Covid death burden has translated into not just infrastructural worries – shortage of hearse for transporting the bodies, shortage of space to bury and burn the dead, and shortage of wood for cremations — but even a manpower crunch. The crematoriums and graveyards have taken in additional staff, but the fear of Covid infection among the employees is often interfering with the work.
On death duty
With the increased deaths from Covid, workforce has been doubled, and at times tripled, at many crematoriums and graveyards.
“In 2019, before the beginning of the pandemic, only two people used to work here. Today, the number of workers has increased to 16. Additionally, there are nine daily wagers just to cut the wood,” said Shobhraj Shukla, who manages the Subhash Nagar crematorium.
The Bhadbhada crematorium has also increased its workforce from 15 to 20, but the fear of Covid, and the ongoing lockdown in the city, have hampered work.
“People are not reporting for work despite being paid, because they are afraid of getting infected. This is a huge problem for us,” said Choudhary. Another employee told ThePrint that the workload has increased so much, that their hands are blistered from constantly chopping wood for pyres.
Another problem facing crematoriums is the procurement of wood.
“With an increase in the number of bodies coming in, our requirement for wood has also increased. We need thicker wood for the pyres to burn properly. But all we are getting are thin logs,” said Shukla. The crematorium employee added that two-and-a-half to three quintals of wood are required to cremate each body.
At the Bhadbhada crematorium, 500 quintals of wood are now being used daily, in the second Covid wave, up from the 60-70 quintals daily that were being used during the first wave.
Employees at the crematorium inform that even the electrical pyre is being overused – there is only one at Bhadbhada. With a capacity to accommodate four bodies per day, the electrical pyre is now cremating up to eight bodies a day. This means that they are having to do without the 30-minute interval between cremations that used to be maintained to give the pyre time to cool down.
“The pipe that provides the pyre heat turns red because it is being used constantly,” said Abdul Waahid, who runs the electrical pyre at Bhadbhada.
According to the state health bulletin, the Madhya Pradesh capital had 94,276 active cases and 5,319 total deaths from Covid, as on 27 April.
Owing to an increase in daily deaths, the state authorised one more crematorium and graveyard — Bairagadh Shamshan Ghat and Bagh Farhat Afza Kabristan — to bury and cremate Covid bodies. Till mid-April, all Covid funerals was being done at Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat, the Subhash Nagar crematorium and Jahangirabad Kabristan. However, none of the five places currently handling funerals for the Covid dead, are dedicated solely for Covid casualties.
The same is true for hearse vans transporting Covid bodies.
“The Bhopal Nagar Nigam has 22 hearse vans to carry bodies from the hospital to either the crematorium or graveyard. But these are not used only for Covid bodies, but also to carry bodies of those who died from other causes. There was a shortage of hearse vans earlier, when we had only 10, but the number was increases from 1 April, so there is no problem now,” K.V.S. Choudhary Kolsani, commissioner, Bhopal Municipal Corporation, told ThePrint.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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