New Delhi: With the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths rising rapidly in Delhi, it’s also becoming a struggle to give the dead a dignified funeral. If on one hand there are fewer hearse vans to ferry bodies, on the other the cremation grounds have longer wait time for families of suspected or confirmed Covid patients.
At Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat, the largest crematorium in the city, there has been a steady climb in the number of bodies, mostly of those who died due to Covid-19.
ThePrint Saturday witnessed a total of five hearse vans from the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) Narayan Hospital, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Hospital, Max Hospital (Saket) and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, bringing in a total of 17 bodies — all Covid-19 victims — between noon and 3 pm.
While two LNJP vans brought six and three bodies in each, one from the Ambedkar hospital had ferried six bodies in two trips. One each from Sir Ganga Ram and Max Hospitals ferried single bodies.
The Delhi High Court had Thursday taken suo motu cognisance of media reports regarding the backlog in disposing bodies of Covid-19 victims.
On Friday, the Delhi government told the high court that it has allowed crematoria run by the city’s civic bodies to use wood, in addition to electric and CNG furnaces, for cremation of confirmed and suspected Covid-19 victims.
The Aam Aadmi Party-led government also informed the court that bodies of Covid patients can now be cremated at two more grounds — Panchkuian and Punjabi Bagh — besides Nigambodh.
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It had said the working hours of crematoria have been extended too. They are now open from 7 am to 10 pm as opposed to 9 am to 4 pm earlier.
On Saturday, the Delhi government issued an order asking hospitals to schedule cremations within 12 hours of a patient’s death. If families do not contact authorities within this period, officials are required to send an intimation of the last rites along with information about the place and time of the cremation or burial.
And in case of unidentified or abandoned bodies, the Delhi Police is to ensure the last rites are done within four days of death.
Bodies stacked inside hearse vans
Inside one of the hearse vans from LNJP Hospital, ThePrint witnessed four bodies on two benches, one stacked on top of another, while two more were kept on the vehicles’s floor.
The driver of the van, along with two hospital attendees, who had brought in the bodies claimed that hospital authorities decide on the number of bodies to be ferried in each vehicle.
“The hospital decides on the number of bodies…we only load and unload them,” said Prakash, an attendee from LNJP Hospital, who had come to Nigambodh Ghat with the hearse van carrying six bodies.
The LNJP authorities, on the other hand, said they were helpless since the number of deaths has been high. “We are the nodal centre for Covid-19 sufferers so the patient load in our facility is very high. We are not in a position to give one hearse van to ferry each body. Relatives don’t come to take the bodies, they think that the hospital will dispose it,” Dr Upendra Kishore, head, Department of Forensics at LNJP Hospital, told ThePrint.
He said the bodies were piling up at the hospital’s morgues, but the situation has improved after the government allowed cremation at Punjabi Bagh and Panchkuian grounds. “But I still have 30 bodies waiting to be cremated and have to send them in bulk.”
Srikanth, driver of the Ambedkar Hospital’s hearse van, said, “We first brought in three bodies and then another three in one van.”
Authorities at the Ambedkar Hospital, however, denied loading more than two bodies in a single hearse van. “We only send one or two bodies per hearse van. It’s not possible that there were three bodies in one,” said Dr Vijay Dhankar, head of forensics department at Ambedkar Hospital.
“There are clear instructions not to transport more than two bodies at a time…We also believe in giving proper respect to the dead. I will look into it and give strict directions on this matter again,” said Dr P.S. Khatana, medical director, Ambedkar Hospital.
‘Crematoriums sending back bodies’
The hospitals have also alleged that prior to the Delhi government’s order extending working hours of crematoria, bodies were being sent back to the morgues because the crematoria were unable to take the load.
“Our mortuary had as many as 74 bodies waiting to be cremated on 24 and 25 May. I was forced to send some bodies to the Ambedkar Hospital. Crematoriums stuck to their time slots earlier and would send back the vans along with the bodies. The court order allowing wood burning has quickened the process, but we still have a backlog here and no option but to send bodies in bulk to the crematorium,” said Dr Kishore.
Authorities at the Nigambodh Ghat, however, denied sending back the bodies. “All the bodies that have come have been cremated. Maybe hearse vans have left themselves after seeing a queue but we have never sent back any van,” said Avdesh Sharma, supervisor, Nigambodh Ghat.
The North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), which oversees functioning of Nigambodh Ghat, also blamed hospitals for sending bodies in bulk.
“Hospitals don’t send the bodies on time. They cannot keep bodies for three days and then send many together. We are cremating between 15 and 30 bodies a day. After the Delhi High Court order, we have even extended our timings from 7 am to 10 pm. Our duty is to cremate all bodies that come,” said Ashok Rawat, municipal health officer of the NDMC.
Shortage of resources at hospitals
Hospitals have also said managing bodies is dependent on its resources and workforce.
“We have limited hearse vans and it takes two hours for each CNG cremation. So vans take time to come back and this adds to the backlog,” said Dr Ritu Saxena, chief medical officer at the LNJP Hospital.
Shortage of workforce is another problem that hospitals have been facing. “The case load is very high and we don’t have enough workforce. I have to send two attendees along with a driver in PPE suits. We don’t have that many staff,” added Dr Kishore.
Private facilities, such as Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, said the key to sending one body per hearse van lay in its effective management. “Patient load is high but our administration is working to streamline things. We have many hearse vans and staff to ensure one body goes in a single ambulance. Only in a couple of occasions, we have sent two bodies together but we otherwise send only one,” said Dr Suruchi Sinha, deputy medical superintendent, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
ThePrint tried to contact Delhi Health Minister Satyender Jain via phone calls, WhatsApp and text messages, as well as email, but no response was received. This report will be updated if he replies.
Family members demand dignity in death
Family members of the deceased said their loves ones were being denied dignity even in death.
“I saw three bodies were loaded, including my friend’s, in one hearse van. They kept one on each bench of the vehicle and another on the floor,” said Sanjeev, whose friend died Saturday.
Others claimed they had no option but to comply with the hospital’s decisions.
“They only showed us the body while loading it. We didn’t like the way the body was being brought in with so many others, but what option did we have?” Shweta, whose father died Saturday morning at the LNJP Hospital, told ThePrint.
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