BHOPAL, Madhya Pradesh — Pradeep Kanaujiya, 62-years-old and a father to four children, cremates bodies for Rs 6,000 per month at the Bhadbhada cremation ground on the outskirts of Bhopal.
After the Covid-19 pandemic entered India in March 2020, Kanaujiya says that he has cremated 2,100 people who died from the deadly virus, including close to an overwhelming 800 in just this month. “Cremating Covid bodies has become a part of my daily life,” he said.
Bhadbhada Ghat is a privately-owned cremation ground located on the outskirts of Bhopal, which employs seven men to cremate bodies. Like cremation grounds across the country, it tells the story of the deadly second wave of Covid-19 that has infected and killed in record numbers in India.
From 1 to 20 April, more than 900 bodies were cremated with Covid-19 protocols at Bhadbhada Ghat, said Lad Singh Sen, its manager. “I have been making 70-80 death certificates every day till midnight. If this trend continues, only God can save us,” he said.
I have been making 70-80 death certificates every day till midnight. If this trend continues, only God can save us.
Arun Choudhary, president of the Bhadhbhada Ghat, said that when the pandemic started in March last year, the cremation ground had a capacity of 15 to 20 bodies every day, and they were getting an average of seven to nine “Covid bodies” every day. In October, Choudhary said that two acres of adjacent land were acquired and arrangements were made for 40 additional bodies, a total of 60. In addition, Choudhary said that he started an electric crematorium earlier this month, where seven bodies were cremated every day last week.
“All these arrangements have gone haywire as we are receiving an average of 90-100 bodies a day since the last two or three weeks,” said Choudhary.
All these arrangements have gone haywire as we are receiving an average of 90-100 bodies a day since the last two or three weeks.
Subhash Nagar Chita Asthal, a second cremation ground in Bhopal, has also seen a steep rise in the number of Covid-19 cremations in the past three weeks, said Somraj Sukhwani, its manager. From 1 to 20 April, 340 people who died of Covid-19 were cremated here, said Sukhwani.
The Jadha graveyard, the lone burial ground for people who die of Covid-19 in Bhopal, has also witnessed a sharp jump in the number of cremations according to Rehan Ahmad, its caretaker who said that the Municipal Corporation has provided them with a JCB machine to flatten the rocky terrain and dig up more graves.
Nearly 150 bodies were buried with Covid-19 protocols between 1 to 20 April, says Ahmad, a number he says is comparable to the data of the previous three months. The graveyard, which was receiving five to seven bodies every day prior to April, has been receiving 15-20 bodies over the past two weeks, he said. “We are keeping 10 to 15 graves ready in advance. If such trends continue, we would need new land to bury the dead,” he said.
While the figures from the managers of the two cremation grounds and one burial ground suggest that 1,390 bodies were cremated in Bhopal from 1 to 20 April, the official death toll in Bhopal, published by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Madhya Pradesh, for these 20 days is 60.
According to one of MP’s latest health bulletin, published on 22 April, five people had died of Covid-19 in Bhopal in the past 24 hours. But the data collected by this reporter from the two cremation grounds and the burial ground reveals that at least 135 bodies were disposed of with Covid-19 protocols in that same time period.
“The Madhya Pradesh Government has been hiding the Covid-19 positive and death data for the past one year. But, the second wave of Covid-19 has exposed their bundle of lies. The data from the cremation grounds and the graveyard in Bhopal have proved it,” said Amulya Nidhi, state coordinator of the Jan Swasth Abhiyan, an organisation that works on public health across the country.
“Media reports, data from the graveyard and cremation grounds, photos, videos everything is against the government’s claim. Yet, they are shamelessly underreporting it. It’s a crime,” he said.
The second wave of Covid 19 has exposed their bundle of lies.
Nearly five trucks of wood are being used for cremating bodies at Bhadbhada Ghat every day, said Sen, its manager.
They raised the charges of performing the last rites of “Covid bodies” from Rs 3,000 a body to Rs 3,500, he said.
Hindu customs preclude cremations after dusk in this part of the country, but as Covid-19 deaths have overwhelmed Bhopal, the district administration has ordered the cremation ground managers to perform last rites in the night, said Sen.
The bodies, eyewitnesses say, are being cremated without any rituals because Hindu priests fear getting infected with Covid-19. They also say that instead of ghee, which is traditionally used in the cremation of Hindus, bodies are being burnt by pouring liters of kerosene oil as it burns quickly.
Kaunajiya said that two Muslim men, Saddam Qurashi and Danish, who were employees of the Bhopal Municipal Corporation, delivered the bodies to the Bhadbhada Ghat, and sometimes helped him with the cremation.
Kanaujiya has cremated so many bodies in the past few weeks that his hands are covered with blisters.
Kanaujiya said that he lived through the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy, but he has never witnessed such chaos in the city. Earlier this month, in a case of mistaken identity, a Muslim woman was cremated as per Hindu traditions instead of being buried.
Kanaujiya worries about the safety of the men he works with and the consequences of them contracting the deadly virus. “If they fall prey to Covid-19, who will make the arrangements here,” he said.
No PPE kit
When the first “Covid body” arrived at Bhadbhada Ghat in the last week of March 2020, Kanaujiya said it was wrapped in a white plastic bag, and the Bhopal Municipal Corporation gave him a white jumpsuit they called a “PPE kit” (Personal Protective Equipment-PPE) and told him to wear it while performing the last rites.
The 200 PPE kits provided by the state government lasted about two weeks, and when no new kits arrived, Kanaujiya said he had no choice but to continue cremating bodies without any protection.
“Left with no option, I started cremating bodies without wearing a PPE kit for the next couple of months. Initially, I wasn’t sure but it made me fearless. Now, I do not fear the deadly virus,” he said.
Kanaujiya was not wearing a PPE when this reporter interviewed him on 20 April.
Kashif Kakvi is multimedia journalist based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.