Among the busy side streets of East Delhi’s Seemapuri neighbourhood, an old cremation ground that used to be hidden away behind trees and the hustle and bustle of traffic can now be spotted from far away by the thick cloud of smoke rising up throughout the day.
Nearby roads have been taken over by small shacks assembled to store the wood required for cremations, as well as by the lines of ambulances that arrive with more dead bodies every few minutes.
The explosion of activity at the Seemapuri crematorium is mirrored at other funeral grounds across Delhi, in the grip of a devastating Covid second wave that has seen more than 400 people die every day in the capital for the last four days. Those official numbers are seen as a heavy understatement.
On Monday, when The Independent visited the cremation ground, 12 pyres were burning at the same time. Wherever you look, a dead body lies on the floor covered in white cloth, as families await their turn in the scorching heat of Delhi in May.
Most of the bodies are brought into the ground by a group of volunteers who are helping the residents cremate their loved ones with dignity, as many crematoriums in India’s worst-hit cities are either turning people away, or have queues of more than a day.
“We used to receive eight to 10 bodies a day earlier, now we receive 10 times more, sometimes 110 or 120 bodies in a day,” says Jitender Singh Shunty of Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, an NGO helping people with cremations. As he talks , he says two more bodies are on the way.
His organisation had cremated 31 bodies that day in just four hours. While he assists one family that arrived with the dead body of their 59-year-old father, he gets another call from his ambulance driver, who is bringing a body from South Delhi’s Greater Kailash area. Within minutes, another dead body arrives from Green Park.
“One body takes one to two hours to burn. We are trying our best to not turn anyone away, but we have never seen so many bodies coming in,” one of the workers said.
Outside the gate, in a makeshift tent, Raja Hashmi, another member of the NGO, announces that people need to take a token and wait, while he hands everyone a bottle of water.
“This is a new system we have come up with when we saw the number of bodies rising; we didn’t want people to fight over who will go inside first,” says Shunty, who has been helping people perform last rites for over two decades.
“Our staff are working for at least 16 to 17 hours every day. As long as there is a family standing outside, we work here,” he says.
Crematoriums are letting go of certain traditions and Covid protocols as they struggle to deal with the surge. Just a few kilometres from Seemapuri, Ghazipur cremation ground also had people queueing up for cremations.
However, the government numbers in many greatly impacted cities fails to capture the real agony. Residents in the city have been struggling to survive with an acute shortage of beds, oxygen and medicine continuing, as the city’s graveyards and crematoriums have been overflowing.
Shunty says his NGO was set up to facilitate the cremation of those abandoned by their families – however, during Covid, he is helping everyone. But he says the number of people abandoned in their last minutes is also something he has never seen on such a massive scale.
“We have cremated over 250 bodies where no one from the families were present, for various reasons,” he says. “Sometimes because all members of the family test positive, and sometimes may be because they don’t want to get into the hassle of finding space for cremation.”
“We get bodies coming in auto rickshaws and even e-rickshaws because relatives can’t arrange for an ambulance,” he adds. “Some people lose their lives while the family searching for hospital or on way, a lot of people are also dying in home quarantine, alone with no one to take care of, we bring them here.
“Some people also got the body from the mortuary but leave it here in front of us. I don’t know why, maybe they were scared, or they didn’t care about the person who died,” Shunty says.
Near the back gate of the crematorium in a narrow lane, two people who work as daily wage labourers sat waiting for their turn. One of them, Ram Lal, says his friend died after he had fever. He doesn’t know if it was Covid because he never got tested, but he was one of those who arrived in a ricksaw with a dead body, without any mask or PPE.
Shunty’s volunteers have been keeping stocks of masks and sanitisers with them, to distribute among those who arrive with the bodies.
“Sometimes people are grieving, and they forget about the risk,” one person who was helping bring a dead body inside on a stretcher said. “We try to help them but it’s difficult to ensure that every grieving person will be wearing a mask.”
While Shunty and his team are helping others, his own family back home has tested positive, with one of his managers struggling for his life in ICU.
“I haven’t gone back home in the last four days, I sleep here in my car,” he says. However, amid the horror, he hopes the number of dead bodies will be going down soon.
“It is a harrowing experience, especially seeing the dead bodies of young people,” he says, explaining that with the scale of the crisis the city is facing, he and other crematorium volunteers have no choice but to numb themselves to what they are witnessing.
“We are functioning on autopilot,” he says.