India

'No Break': Delhi Crematorium Workers Struggle With Rising Body Count

'No Break': Delhi Crematorium Workers Struggle With Rising Body Count

Coronavirus: COVID-19 cases have been rising in Delhi

New Delhi:

A 19-year-old crematorium worker is building his seventh pyre of the day at a crematorium in east Delhi's Ghazipur - and it's only lunch time. He works in the section meant to receive bodies of Covid victims. He wears only a mask; a PPE is a far cry. The flames are too hot and too close to him to comfortably and safely wear a plastic PPE suit.

"Every day, there is no time to take a break until 12:30 am. Only then we eat and sleep. We wake up at 5 am to clean up and collect ashes from the pyres that we burned the day before to give to families. Then we start cremation again at 10 am," said the man, asking not to be named, due to what he said was caste-linked social stigma attached to this work.

Far from home in Uttar Pradesh's Ayodhya, he works more than 12 hours a day and sleeps at the crematorium grounds.

During last year's Covid wave, five out of the 15 workers at the Ghazipur crematorium ran away. On why he didn't leave, the 19-year-old said, "I was scared too. But I couldn't leave so suddenly. There are responsibilities here. If I left, then the people who come here with bodies would have been in difficulty."

He left the crematorium only thrice in the last two months. He needs to be available almost 24 hours a day as Covid fatalities in the national capital reach record highs. Bodies also arrive here from the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

"Thinking too much can make a man sick. This is our job," he said on how he manages to get through the day and escape emotional damage.

The priest at the Ghazipur crematorium, Ram Karan Mishra, said the workers did not have time to get vaccinated. "We can only take it if the government comes here and gives it to us. There are so many dead bodies every day. It is too difficult for us to leave these grounds," Mr Mishra said.

Workers are paid between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 a month. None felt comfortable sharing when was the last time they were paid; they said they are performing their religious duty.

Crematorium workers across the country on the frontlines of the pandemic are underpaid, overworked, unvaccinated and uninsured. Most have to deal with caste-based discrimination in addition to the stigma of being exposed to coronavirus.