A notice stuck to the gate of Antim Niwas, a crematorium in Noida’s Sector 94, proclaims: ‘Bodies from Greater Noida cannot be cremated here’. At 8:30 pm, 21 pyres are alit inside, overflowing from the platforms meant to hold them on to the ground.
Near the CNG chamber, operator Deepak Kumar has come out to catch a breath. Both the machines are occupied, but four bodies are yet to be cremated, waiting in parked ambulances.
“I have been working for close to 16 hours for several days now, sleeping for 3-4 hours. I am swaying on my feet,” Kumar says.
As a ferocious Covid-19 wave ravages the national capital, crematorium staff have seen their workload multiply several times over, working, at tremendous risk, with bodies of Covid patients and dealing with crowds of mourning family members.
Yet, 29-year-old Kumar is not wearing a PPE suit. “Yes, I know the risks, but it is impossible to do the job I do in a PPE suit. The heat makes the suit shrivel and stick to our skins. We can handle neither wooden pyres nor CNG machines wearing PPE,” he says.
Why does he need to work 16 hours?
“Before this Covid wave hit, about 3-4 bodies would come for CNG cremation, including unclaimed/unidentified corpses the police send. Now, 18-20 bodies are coming daily. There are two of us who operate the CNG machines. You do the math,” says Mahesh Pandey, Kumar’s colleague.
Are they getting extra pay or benefits for the hours they are putting in?
“So far, nothing. We are getting our usual salary, Rs 12,000 a month. Noida Lok Manch, the NGO that manages Antim Niwas, gives us santisers, PPE suits, masks, etc. What we need right now is some sort of beema (health insurance). If something were to happen to me, I would be totally on my own,” says Kumar.
Both Kumar and Pandey live on the premises of the crematorium. “No question of going home,” says Pandey. “The bodies I cremate are wrapped up, but I am in contact with hundreds of people every day, many of them coming from hospitals, including ambulance drivers. I don’t like thinking about how much risk I am at. But there’s no question of backing out when there is so much to be done.”
What facilities do they need most immediately?
“Even if I have to get a glass of water, I have to walk to the canteen, right on the other side. That’s how the ground was designed. But we are surrounded with waiting bodies all day, how many times can I make the trip? I don’t think anyone ever imagined a crematorium would be this overworked. The pyres almost never go out. Before I leave for the day, I see flames. I am back within a few hours, and there are flames,” says Kumar.
Do they need help to cope with the mental toll of it all? Pandey blinks. “No, we need drinking water.”
“I don’t think anyone is even thinking about the mental stress right now,” says a priest, who has just come back from tending to a pyre. “Everyone is stunned with the amount of work, we are just getting through each day. We keep moving automatically from one task to the other, with no time to think. Right now, this seems like a blessing, but I don’t know how this will hit us when we finally have time to pause and take stock.”
Three more priests join him. They are waiting for the pyres to burn out so the ‘asthi’ can be collected, labelled and stored. “Traditionally for Hindus, last rites are supposed to end by sunset. But now families have no choice. Had you come earlier in the day, you would have seen waiting bodies lining up this entire stretch,” another priest says, pointing to the long road towards the exit.
Antim Niwas has 24 platforms for pyres. They had to start cremations on the ground in early April, the priests say.
“Doing what we do, we are used to death, to grieving family members. What is new is this crowding in death. The last hours your mortal remains are spending on earth are in a queue. The other day, a young man had come with the body of his father. He had to get back to his sick wife and mother. He was impatient at the delay and then guilty at his impatience. I didn’t know what to tell him, and I am trained in comforting the bereaved,” says the first priest.
The priests too have not been offered more pay for the extra hours, or health insurance. They get PPE kits and masks from the NGO, but don’t wear the suits because of the heat. The priests say while earlier, they would cremate 15 bodies a day, with some days seeing no bodies at all, now, upto 45 pyres are being burnt daily.
All four refuse to give their names. “FIR ho gayi tou aur kaam badh jayega (an FIR would really add to our workload),” says one.
Just then, there is commotion near the CNG chamber. One more body has arrived, and Kumar is pleading exhaustion. “I am sorry, I will faint. I feel unwell. If I take this on, I will be here past midnight. I won’t be able to sleep for more than four hours yet another night. Instead of a CNG coupon, please get a coupon for a wooden pyre,” he tells the family. The family agrees, goes back to the office, but the office has shut by now. Kumar decides to stay on. “See, this is what is difficult. For the departed souls, I am the last person to have any kind of interaction with them. I would hate their loved ones to think I was doing it impatiently or unwillingly. But I too have my physical limits,” he says.
The office of Antim Niwas refused to share the number of bodies cremated on the day. “For figures, please ask the state government. We are just doing the best we can,” a Noida Lok Manch member said.
The closest crematorium to Antim Niwas is the Ghazipur cremation ground. Sunil Sharma, the in-charge of the ground, says while earlier, they cremated about 20 bodies a day, amid the second Covid wave, they have had to cremate up to 140. Sharma, too, says PPE suits cannot be used by crematorium workers. The government has not announced any special schemes or compensation for them.
“Out staffers are working up to 12-14 hours a day. A local NGO is looking after their meals and we are providing them masks, santisers, and what mental solace we can,” Sharma says. “But you know one of the biggest problems we are facing? We try to arrange the cremations keeping Covid guidelines and speed in mind, so everyone is helped. But every now and then, we get calls to prioritise some cremations, invoking some senior official or MLA’s name. People are trying to use ‘sources’ in death,” he says.