COVID-19 Horror Over But For Vadodara's Crematorium Workers, the Grief Continues
Crematorium workers in Vadodara, Gujarat are now struggling to make ends meet.
“When families leave their own behind- that’s when you know something is wrong. We have seen it all here.” Kanhaiya Shirke, a former crematorium worker at the Vasna crematorium compound said.
“Do you see the empty crematorium now? Only months before people used to wait in queues to complete the last rites.”
During the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in Gujarat, the crematoriums in Vadodara, Gujarat served as a refuge for the deceased. There was constant activity. Lifeless bodies kept coming, accompanied by relatives.
Shirke would pick up wood and place it in a criss-cross pattern on the pyre. The wood was then soaked in ghee. This ordeal would take place continuously through what we now call the second wave in India. Mornings would turn into nights, but the pyres kept burning. Shirke did not get much sleep. His wife would accompany him and sweep the ashes that would escape the wooden pyre. The crematorium felt like a furnace.
Shirke worked as a crematorium worker in Vadodara through the second wave of the pandemic. He found himself in a city that was foreign to him on 22 March, 2021. While he lived with his family in Mumbai, the search for a livelihood brought him to Vadodara.
He managed to get a job that required him to paint walls in the Sun Pharmaceutical factory in Vadodara. He was laid off and termed as a migrant labourer during the pandemic. The city that was sheltering him for months had no roof to provide him.
A general sense of distrust permeated the city as people felt anyone could be a carrier of the deadly virus that was taking lives without any discrimination.
With nowhere to stay, he pitched up his meagre belongings inside the prayer hall of Vasna crematorium ground inside Vadodara city. He started working under Jalaram Trust, a religious organization that had been providing cremation services for years.
The concept of sewa appealed to him. Not even the slippers that he wore were from his own money, he confided in me. Some families would tip him generously in cash. Others would give a box of sweets to his kids who would run around the crematorium. The children were a lively contrast to the backdrop of mourning relatives. Many would leave the crematorium hurriedly, without a second glance. They would not even touch the body. The ashes would be left abandoned.
WHERE GETTING BURNT IS ‘PART OF THE JOB’
“Room number 42 used to be full,” he said. More than a thousand brass pots, containing ashes, piled on top of each other. Each pot was dressed with a red strand of thread to ward off the evil eye. They would all sit in a darkened room locked up until Shirke saw them piling up. There just was not any more room.
After about 10 phone calls, he convinced a rickshaw driver to bid them farewell in a befitting manner. The ashes were bundled up. Multiple trips were made to the holy rivers of Mahisagar and Chandod that lie adjoining Vadodara and are often revered as places for healing.
But now, as one enters the crematorium one can see only what used to be. A sour stench emerges from what is now an empty crematorium. The smell is a reminder of all the bodies that were once burnt. The complete lack of human activity here gives us a false sense of hope. As If indicating how the days that were to come would look like.
The workers had accustomed themselves to the tribulations of working at a crematorium. Blisters would develop on the hands and a few men complained of accidentally burning their legs. But they comforted themselves by saying that this is a “part of the job”. The government made no effort to pay the medical bills these men incurred either. Tending to a burn meant spending Rs 10,000. This was more than half of what they earnt in a month.
The dearth of land to cremate bodies compelled the government to prop up makeshift crematoriums in obscure areas in the Vadodara district in addition to the crematorium grounds that already existed within the city.
LOCAL MUSLIMS MANAGED CREMATORIUMS, OVERCOMING OBJECTIONS
Sabbir Diwan, a contractor in Vadodara, would liaison between the Vadodara municipal corporation. He handled 15 new crematoriums. This was in addition to the crematoriums that already existed within the city. Some of these places were Tarsali, Danteshwar and Khaswadi - empty government grounds in the periphery of the city.
The villagers who resided near these lands raised objections briefly on the religious identities of those who were given the job of cremating the bodies. The villagers prided themselves on being “Hindus” and did not consider those from other religions capable to cremate a body.
However, the protests of the villagers died down when no one from their own community stepped forward to cremate their brothers and sisters. The jobs which no one wanted and was seen equivalent to a death wish was passed onto Muslims.
Diwan lamented that the people living in these villages would stop them from cremating bodies. But a reluctant understanding was forged and the Muslim men were allowed to cremate dead bodies. This, after years of distrust that pervaded between the two communities.
Some government lands like that in Pipadiya had shouldered 25 pyres where bodies could be cremated alone. Yet another ground in Tarsali housed 12 pyres. On an average, these new cremation grounds would have 9-12 pyres that would function through the night.
The young men would try to wash away the traces of the virus that might have seeped into their hands before they ate their meals. But the possibility of death remained in their minds. They would whisper a prayer before they thrust a mixture of rice and pulses into their mouths. This became customary before every meal.
The massive influx of bodies required more hands to cremate them. As a result, the contractor hired 50 more young men who would otherwise be involved in odd construction jobs. It is when he asked his own son to do this job, that the risks involved hit him. But bodies had to be burnt, and hands were needed to burn these bodies. At an average thirty bodies would trickle in every day. The workers who were outsourced were asked to cremate the bodies for Rs 500 a day.
Trucks laden with wood to adorn the funeral pyre would enter the crematorium grounds early in the morning. By late evening the amount of wood that came into the grounds would always be in deficit as the bodies would come in abundance.
The bodies would arrive packaged in white flimsy material in bulky cars from the hospital. Once the body was laid on the makeshift pyre, it would persist and typically take anywhere between 4-6 hours to burn. Remains of burnt pieces of fabric would melt into the metal grill on which the body would be carefully placed.
Their ashes were then collected in earthen pots unlike the brass pots used by the crematorium in the confines of cities.
Swejal Vyash, an activist from Vadodara, got a rare peek into the interiors of the crematorium ground. He would gather these pots filled with ashes and take them to Haridwar to complete the last rites. News reporters and photographers were kept out from visiting these grounds on the pretext of higher orders from police officials.
‘CAN YOU HELP US?’
But the crematorium workers seemed to have been affected the most. They had little access to the healthcare system to weave a protective net around them. The complete disregard for them was evident in the lack of PPE kits for the workers.
“We are 10 people, and they would send 5 PPE kits,” said Diwan.
Their lives were treated like an afterthought.
And just as quickly as the crematorium workers were employed when the country was going through a pandemic, the workers and their services were discarded without any notice.
With a lull around coronavirus, our focus has shifted welcomingly to a false sense of normalcy. But the crematorium workers find themselves with no jobs to fall back on and no support from anyone. “No one will listen to a word we say.”
A ring of truthfulness echoes in what they say.
“Can you help us?” they look at me with a glimmer of hope in their eyes.
It is the very people who pulled us through the pandemic while working relentlessly on the frontline, that the government has now turned a blind eye to.
The mayhem of death has ended for the time being. But the perennial problems of lack of work, support and healthcare remain with us.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Vadodara and has worked with BBC UK and Vice Asia in the past. The story was reported under the National Foundation for India (NFI) Media Fellowships for independent journalists.)
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