Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia/Mohd Irshad Alam
(This story was first published on 1 May 2021. It is being reposted from The Quint's archives, after Jitender Singh Shunty was awarded the Padma Shri for his services during the second wave of COVID-19 in India.)
The super spreader second COVID-19 wave in India has locked up most of us at home. But there are some good samaritans who are out there helping those in need.
One such person is Jitender Singh Shunty, who has been running a free ambulance service, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, in East Delhi, for over two decades.
He has set up a makeshift office outside the Seemapuri crematorium. His team has been picking up bodies from hospitals and homes free of cost right through the pandemic. But he says the last few weeks have been nightmarish.
I have brought in 115 bodies in a day. Of which, 40-45 bodies were picked up from homes. People have died of COVID-19 during home quarantine. Often no ambulance goes to pick up the body. We pick the bodies, sanitize them, pack them, and then cremate them here at Seemapuri crematorium.Jitender Singh Shunty, Founder, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
The Quint did a ground report from Seemapuri crematorium on 27 April. We spent almost six hours there, watching as bodies were brought in every 10 to 20 minutes.
Shunty's ambulance helpline number was ringing non-stop. We even accompanied Shunty's ambulances as they went to pick up bodies from people's homes.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life. The second COVID wave is very dangerous. After 10 April the number of bodies have kept on increasing at the crematorium. So far, the maximum number of bodies we have cremated in a single day here, is 125.”Jitender Singh Shunty, Founder, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
On 27 April, 105 bodies were cremated in Seemapuri crematorium alone. Shunty said that the Delhi government is not revealing the true numbers of COVID-19 deaths.
“The Delhi government says out of 120 bodies, 60 are COVID-19 deaths. But I say 90% are COVID deaths. For 20 years, I have been seeing 5-7 bodies cremated here daily. Now, the sudden pressure on crematoriums across Delhi, is only due to COVID deaths.”Jitender Singh Shunty, Founder, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
Shunty says that the second wave has hit all age groups, not even sparing the young this time.
“I feel shattered to see bodies of young people. The second wave has claimed more younger lives. In fact, I know many families who have each lost 3-4 members.”Jitender Singh Shunty, Founder, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
Shunty's team, working selflessly on the frontline, has also suffered during the pandemic. One of his team members passed away during the first COVID wave. Even now, one of his team members has been In ICU since 25 April, and three team members have tested positive.
Ravi, is a florist in Delhi. Due to lockdown, he has been out of work. He recently joined Shunty's team as volunteer.
“People are very scared this time. But if all of us get scared then you will see bodies abandoned on the streets. At least family members should not be afraid to touch bodies of loved ones. Just yesterday, seven families paid us to cremate their family members, they did not come to the cremation ground.”Ravi, Volunteer, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
Does your family stop you from doing this voluntary service?
My family scolds me, tries to stop me. But if family members don’t come forward to cremate then someone else has to do it.
Shunty recalls how on 25 April, his team found a body abandoned outside Seemapuri crematorium. As per procedure, he called police and informed them about the body, got it registered and then cremated it.
“Not humans but humanity is dying in Delhi. People are abandoning bodies at crematoriums. 90% people do come to cremate, but some give us rights to cremate and a few people are such that they just abandon the body.”Jitender Singh Shunty, Founder, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
Shunty does not go home to protect his family. He spends the whole day outside the crematorium. Despite these challenges Shunty continues his work offering people dignity in death.
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