New Delhi: You can see it in the long queue stretching out before the token counter at Nigambodh Ghat, one of the Covid-19-designated crematoria in Delhi. It’s also clear in the hearse vans arriving by the dozen, and the row of relatives sitting under the sun, awaiting their turn.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see it in the numbers. According to Union health ministry data, Delhi had altogether reported 812 Covid-19 deaths until Monday.
The capital’s Covid fatalities are currently being handled by five facilities — Nigambodh Ghat, Punjabi Bagh, P.K. Road, Karkardooma, and Lodhi Road.
The Delhi government health bulletin reported 509 deaths between 27 May and 7 June. Data from the five crematoria, meanwhile, suggests a total of 1,019 ‘coronavirus cremations’ were carried out in the same period.
Government guidelines dictate that suspected patients should also be cremated with due precautions. So, the crematorium data factors in suspected patients of the disease, who may have died of Covid-19 but were deprived of a confirmed diagnosis because Delhi is not testing the dead.
This exploding Covid-19 crisis in Delhi is playing out in its morgues and crematoriums.
Of the five crematoria stated above, Nigambodh and P.K. Road are overseen by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), while the three others are being managed by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC).
When approached for comment about the situation at Delhi’s crematoriums, Hari, the personal secretary to the Delhi health secretary, asked ThePrint to raise the matter with the civic agencies.
While NDMC medical officer of health (MHO) Ashok Rawat, the nodal officer for coordinating Covid cremations at Nigambodh, didn’t answer phone calls, the SDMC acknowledged the concerns and said more facilities were being permitted to handle Covid cremations.
Rising arrivals at cremation facilities
Rituals take a backseat when it’s the funeral of a patient who has died of a highly contagious disease that has taken on pandemic proportions. Among several communities in India, including Hindus and Muslims, the dead are traditionally carried to crematoria and burial grounds atop shoulder-borne arthis, laden with flowers of tribute.
But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the rules. Bodies arrive at crematoria in hearse vans from hospitals. Once there, the bodies are taken out and placed on a makeshift trolley or stretchers before being carted off to cremation sites.
On a visit to the Nigambodh Ghat last week, ThePrint discovered that workers of the crematorium were handling the bodies — which were covered in a shroud alone — with nothing but a mask, often fashioned out of scarves, and gloves to protect them from infection.
The hospital workers, meanwhile, arrive in personal protective equipment (PPE) gear, all of which is burnt as a precaution before they return.
At Nigambodh Ghat, the union territory’s largest crematorium, there are more arrivals than the facility can handle, so the patients’ loved ones wait for hours.
Between 27 May and 7 June, its records suggest, Nigambodh conducted a total of 469 wood-pyre and CNG cremations, an average of almost 40 per day.
Until 27 May, wood-pyre cremations of Covid-19 patients were barred because they were seen as a potential transmission risk. But the Delhi government subsequently allowed them amid reports of bodies piling up at mortuaries as overburdened crematoria sent them back.
Among the five designated Covid-related cremation facilities in Delhi, the one at Punjabi Bagh is the only other that conducts both wooden-pyre and CNG/electric funerals. Here, a total of 480 cremations were conducted between 27 May and 7 June, an average of exactly 40 per day.
The crematoriums at Karkardooma and P.K. Road recorded 32 and 26 Covid cremations, respectively, during the same period.
The Lodhi Road facility, an electric crematorium, handled 12 cremations in the 12-day period, an official of the SDMC said.
Limited resources at overburdened crematoriums
As things stand, Nigambodh Ghat has three CNG furnaces, all of which are reserved for Covid-19 patients. A further 48 wood-pyre slots are reserved for patients of the disease too.
Workers claim that three other CNG furnaces have been out of order for four years, which has contributed to the long queues that are now a constant at the ground.
“Only three CNG furnaces are working because the remaining three stopped working four years ago and were never fixed. If the government spent the lockdown period building health infrastructure, why didn’t they get these furnaces fixed?” asked Pandit Deepak of Nigambodh Ghat.
At Punjabi Bagh, only two of the four CNG furnaces are working along with 40 slots for wood-pyre cremations. “While cremations can be done on all 40 wood-pyre slots simultaneously, CNG furnaces take close to two hours to dispose of one body,” said Pandit Kamal Kant Sharma, who works at Punjabi Bagh.
Along with the limited resources, Nigambodh Ghat and Punjabi Bagh also suffer from a shortage of staff.
“Only two workers know how to operate the CNG furnaces here. I have written to senior officials to hire more workers who can be trained to use these machines, so shifts can be split and cremations can be done faster,” said an official of the NDMC supervising Covid-19 cremations at Nigambodh Ghat.
At Punjabi Bagh, there is only one CNG furnace operator. “The hospitals inform us about the number of bodies coming in and we make slots for the CNG cremations accordingly, but due to the large number of bodies, there’s a delay,” said Pandit Sharma.
Staff at crematoriums say that, with hearse vans bringing in dead bodies in bulk and their limited resources, there’s an inevitable delay.
“Sometimes, hospitals send in as many as six bodies in one hearse van. It takes two hours in the CNG furnace to dispose of one body. Due to this, there’s a long waiting line as well,” said the aforementioned NDMC official.
Hours and hours
The delay often stretches into hours, for not just relatives but also the health workers who ferry the bodies from hospitals.
“It’s been two hours and not one of the four bodies I brought has been unloaded yet because of the long queue,” said Nitin, a hearse van driver for AIIMS.
Meanwhile, as the queues and waiting time stretch on and the bodies continue to arrive, staff at crematoriums are worried about their exposure to the virus.
“We had stopped taking Covid bodies from 29 May because the crematorium committee was trying to convince the municipal agencies to not send Covid bodies here,” said Sultan Singh, a supervisor at P.K. Road crematorium.
“Our staff was scared and did not want to cremate Covid bodies but eventually the municipal agencies had their way. Covid cremation has resumed from 6 June,” he added.
Crematorium workers allege that the government has not done anything to protect them from the virus. “The hospital workers come in PPE kits, the relatives (who conduct funeral rites) wear PPE kits, but what about us?” asked Pandit Vinod, in-charge of the Karkardooma cremation ground.
“Hospital staff sit anywhere in those PPE kits and then they dispose them of (burn) them here as well. We are not as scared of the body as we are of the hospital workers and relatives who accompany the body,” said Pandit Deepak of Nigambodh Ghat.
“We should also get insurance and be treated as corona warriors. We are risking our lives every day and the government doesn’t even care. At least they should sanitise the cremation ground regularly,” said Pandit Vinod.
Among other things, the crematoriums have called for other facilities in the capital to be engaged as well. “Why isn’t the government allowing all crematoriums in the city to cremate Covid bodies? That will ease the pressure on us,” said Suman Kumar Gupta, Nigambodh management committee.
Officials at the SDMC acknowledged these concerns. “The load is immense on both Punjabi Bagh as well as Nigambodh Ghat crematoriums. They are averaging about 40 cremations a day,” said Bhupender Gupta, the chairman of the SDMC standing committee.
“We have written to the government to allow CNG cremations at Subhash Nagar and Green Park as well,” he added.
Meanwhile, questions continue to be raised about the official Covid toll released by the Delhi government, with critics citing crematorium data to back their concerns.
“The government is not revealing the figures correctly. Our data from crematoriums shows that the toll is much higher than what the official numbers are,” said Gupta of SDMC.
However, Dr Ritu Saxena, the chief medical officer at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, the largest Delhi government-run dedicated Covid-19 facility, refuted the concerns.
“There’s no disparity in the data that either we or the government is giving and that from the crematoriums. Since suspected cases also have to follow the same SOP for cremations, the number may be high because of that,” she added.
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