Their work is anything but ordinary, ensuring that man is sent on his final journey with dignity and respect. But COVID-19 changed all this and while the rest of the world is scared of this virus, these men continue to work for long hours risking themselves. SHALINI SAKSENA catches up with some of the warriors who face death every day
Staring at mortality everyday
Fear is a state of mind that can be overcome, say the two staffers Harendra and Pappu at the Nigambodh electric crematorium in New Delhi. For the duo, while the last four months have been tough given the risk they take every day when it comes to handling the bodies of the COVID-19 patients that come to the ghat but the dead need a proper send off even if the bags in which they come wrapped in can’t be opened as per the Government guidelines.
“How will we do our work if we get scared and fear the virus? We stare at death all the time. Yes, the Coronavirus has put fear in the minds of the people but not in mine. I was a bit apprehensive but then I had to move past that fast. I got rid of it by burning it with the COVId-19 bodies. The dead coming to the ghat needed a proper send-off. How would that have got that if we shirked our work or decided not to do it?” 55-year-old Harendra asks who hails from Balia, in Uttar Pradesh.
He had come to the Capital in 1990 on the behest of his father-in-law with a promise of a job. For many years he worked making calenders with God and Goddess. But the work took toll on his health and decided to work elsewhere. This is when his brother-in-law told him about working at the crematorium.
“I took this job because it was safer. At the calender making, I was ending up inhaling fumes and it affected my health. I have two sons and had to think about them decided to work elsewhere. That is how I ended up here. I like this job. Yes, some people give us strange looks and think that what we do is weird, but each person on earth has been chosen to do certain kind of work. This is what I have been chosen to do,” Harendra says who stays with his family in Rohini and commutes on his bike.
He gets `16,000 as salary. “Besides this, sometimes people give us `100 or `200. But sometimes, there are people who are so poor that they can’t afford a proper cremation for their loved one. In that case, a few of us at the crematorium pitch and do the needful. Just because a person is poor doesn’t mean that their dead need to be discarded,” Harendra tells you.
For a long time, the duo continued to work without PPE kits. “We protected ourselves with what we had — a mask. There are some days when we end up with no PPEs. But I don’t let that scare. I am doing God’s work and I believe that He will protect me. Death is the only thing that is certain when we are born. Why should one fear it? We are born, we will all die. That is the truth,” Harendra says.
For thirty-nine-year-old Pappu, fear was very real. “I was scared and didn’t want to touch the COVID-19 bodies that came initially. The scare was what if I spread the disease to my family. I have a mother, wife and three small children. What will happen to them if I test positive or if they test positive? But humans are resilient. We have learnt to live with the virus and the fear that comes with it. I have done the same,” Pappu says who is paid `12,000 as salary.
There is a silver lining that involves his work, he says. Last week he had got to know that his name had been nominated for an honour for this service during the lockdown period. However, he tells you that he has not got any letter stating the same. “It is good enough for me to know at least my name was nominated,” he says, who has kept soap and an antiseptic solution at the ghat. I take a bath here before I leave for home. Once I reach home, I take a bath once again,” Pappu says.
“Yes, the work that I do is risky, but how many people are honoured for their work by the President himself? I am lucky that I have been chosen for this honour,” Pappu says.
‘I had to quarantine myself to protect my family’
He used to drive a taxi in the Capital. However, a few years back, he had to take a tough call when his father who used to be the caretaker at the Jadid Qabrastan Ahle Islam in ITO, could no longer carry out his duties due to old age — whether he wanted to step into his fathers shoes. Meet Mohammad Shamim, the present caretaker who has till now buried over 550 people in the 50-acres of the graveyard since the outbreak of COVID-19.
His wife was not happy with his decision and did try to persuade him otherwise given that they have four school-going daughters. But Shamim was adamant. “I just felt that this was the right thing to do. We are third generation caretakers. Mere dada karte thhe, phir mere valid aur ab main. When my father became too old to do the work himself I had a choice. But I felt it was my calling. Not everyone gets the opportunity to ensure that man on his final journey is sent with dignity and respect that he deserves. I like the work that I do. It brings me peace. Every person deserves a send-off; I am just glad that I have been chosen to do so,” Shamim says.
He tells you that the qabrastan where he works belongs to a private committee and he is paid `100 for each body that he helps bury. But for the COVID-19 bodies, he is paid `1000 per day. Though the amount his not much, he says but he gets by since there is other work that he does at the graveyard.
While his committee doesn’t provide PPE kits, it was much later that some journalists, some hospitals and even actor Vidya Balan after coming to know that Shamim was burying the dead with no PPE kit provided him with the necessary cover. But he tells you that it is not easy to wear the kit from 9 am in the morning till late evening.
“The doctors and staff working in the hospital have better, they work in an air-conditioned environment. My work entails me to be out the whole day in the blazing sun. It is not easy to wear the kit, the two masks, gloves and a face shield and dig a grave when the temperatures are touching 46° Celsius. First, it is extremely uncomfortable. Second, one can’t breath properly. It was very tough. But I had to get used to it,” he tells you.
When he didn’t have the kit, he had to ensure that he kept his family safe. So he quarantined himself from his family in the house they live given to them by the committee. He shifted in a room that was a few yards away. His meals would be delivered to him and kept outside the room.
“With no protection, I had to ensure that my family was safe. I was a bit apprehensive to being with but someone has to do this job and that too with dignity and respect for the dead. I did what I had to do for my family and did my work. I ensured that the grave was dug to specification of three feet. I ensured that the body was lowered according to the specifications; I would then place a stone on the body and then the soil to finally cover the grave properly. Sometimes, there are people who don’t want to touch the body and don’t know what to do. In that case, I do the work for them while the maulvi reads the ,” the 38-year old says.
For the COVID-19 bodies, he tells you there is a different protocol altogether. One can’t remove the bag in which they come in, nor can one clothe them or wash them before burying. “In such a scenario, we have to ensure that the other rituals are followed to a T,” Shamim tells you.
Though, it has been tough going but now that the deaths have reduced, he is thankful to God for his mercy. But he is unhappy with the way the administration has treated him. “We are a private committee. When I was told that I would be getting bodies from Government hospital, I told them I needed extra benefit. But they declined and said it was the Government’s decision. The least they could have done was provide us with health insurance. But no, there is nothing for us. Here we are risking our lives; we are warriors too. Has anyone besides a half a dozen people done anything for those who are giving the dead their due? No. But it will not stop me from doing my work. Now, I just pray to God that I never get to see what I have seen in the last four months ever in my life again,” Shamim says.
Risky & tough, but work has to be done
While many of us are still staying indoors in order to protect ourselves from the pandemic that has claimed 6.98 lakh lives globally, there are some people who are putting their lives and theirs families at risk as they ferry COVID-19 patients to hospitals or the dead from the mortuary to the cremation grounds or graveyards. Mohammad Shamim, Harendra and Pappu are not the only ones who are putting their lives at risk.
Abhishek Sharma and his driver partner Anmol Sharma, the two ambulance and hearse drivers have been working for long hours as well.
Abhishek who has been driving the ambulance for the last two years tells you that unlike those working at the crematoriums and graveyards, who didn't have PPEs to begin with, they had it a bit better and were provided the kits by their employers.
“There was no way that we would have been able to do our job properly and not succumb to the virus if we were not wearing the PPEs. Our employer, Rana Ambulance Services, gives this to us. The only problem is that we have to wear it from the time our duty starts till it ends. Sometimes, we get a breather for an hour or so, and we take it off,” Abhishek says.
Like Shamim, he too, has quarantined himself from his family. I have a one-year-old can’t risk my family. Once I am home, I retire into one room, away from my family. I don’t want to give up my job even though their risks involved. It gives me a sense of pride that I am doing what others may consider too risky. For this I am willing to pay price — staying away from my baby and my friends keeping their distance due to the nature of my work — is a very small price that I am willing to pay,” the 27-year-old who gets `15,000 as salary tells you.
His work, he tells you depends on the calls he gets from his employer who has tied-up with various hospitals in Delhi-NCR. “Sometimes, we drive the ambulance, sometimes the hearse. It also, depends on our duty and shift. Our partners keep changing. Most days it is Anmol, Deepak and me. Sometimes, the duty changes,” the Class XII pass out says.
Anmol Sharma, a Class XII pass out as well, came to know about this job from a friend who is also an ambulance driver and liked the job profile and applied for the same. He has now been with the company for a year-and-a-half. While, he has not quarantined himself, he ensures that he takes bath before he meets anyone. He even washes his clothes himself.
“I don’t want anyone in my family to wash my clothes. What if I was carrying the virus? I drive COVID-19 positive people and dead bodies of people with the disease. I like my job and don’t want to give it up. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t protect my family, Sharma says.
Unlike Abhishek, his friends have not given up on him and don’t have a problem with the work that he does. “My friends and family are fine with my job. They probably feel and think the way I do. This work brings me a sense of peace and joy. I like doing what I do. Yes, the work is tough and there are risks involved. But somebody has to get it done. Imagine what will happen if we refuse to do what we do? What will the families of the dead or the patients do?,” Sharma asks.
“This is where I come in,” he says.