As COVID Deaths Rise, Delhi’s Largest Cemetery Runs Out of Space

·6-min read

Video Editor: Sandeep Suman
Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya

“The 4 acres meant for COVID deaths here are exhausted now. There is a problem due to the high number of COVID deaths, but it is not that grim that people have to stand in lines or wait for two days. The kind of delays crematoriums (shamshan ghats) are seeing, it is not that bad in cemeteries (qabristans) yet,” 38-year-old Mohammad Shamin, the caretaker of the largest cemetery in Delhi, called the Delhi Gate Qabristan, tells The Quint on 3 May.

His phone has rung without fault after every few minutes. “No we can not take more bodies, please inquire at another site,” he is heard advising someone to either go to the cemetery close to Tihar, in Mangolpuri or Jaffrabad as he walks away under the scorching sun.

Shamin said he is the third generation of caretakers of the cemetery. Despite the space running out, his phone keeps ringing.
Shamin said he is the third generation of caretakers of the cemetery. Despite the space running out, his phone keeps ringing.

The number of deaths in the capital have been on a consistent rise over the last week (27 April and 3 May), averaging to about 400 deaths every single day. As a result, the number of bodies the cemetery has seen during this surge has also risen. Before COVID five to six bodies came to this graveyard every day, now that number has risen by three times according to Shamin.

Also Read: ‘Third Wave of COVID-19 is Inevitable’: Govt’s Scientific Advisor

Shamin who overlooks the burial of everyone at the graveyard, has been a silent spectator to the pandemic that has lasted over a year and is witnessing its deadly second wave.

“Last year (when there was a peak) things were not as bad... people were mainly dying because they had contracted COVID. This time around people are dying while they are on their way to the hospital in an ambulance. I would say half of the deaths coming in now are mainly because people could not reach the hospital or did not get an oxygen, ventilator and medicines. So the dead bodies are just arriving in cars, instead of in ambulances,” he said.

Shamin said that generally the graves are dug manually by one person who takes about three hours to finish the digging. “With the increase in numbers we had to get a JCB to do the digging, otherwise we were getting very delayed,” he said.
Shamin said that generally the graves are dug manually by one person who takes about three hours to finish the digging. “With the increase in numbers we had to get a JCB to do the digging, otherwise we were getting very delayed,” he said.

‘Deaths Due to Oxygen Shortage is Murder’

After we spoke to Shamin, we met the friends of 66-year-old Abdul Sami Salmani. They were angry that his friend had died due to improper care.

Friends of Abdul Sami Salmani told us that death due to lack of oxygen is not a normal death, but a murder by the hospitals.
Friends of Abdul Sami Salmani told us that death due to lack of oxygen is not a normal death, but a murder by the hospitals.

42-year-old Azad Salmani said, “There is a paucity of oxygen everywhere, the deaths due to oxygen shortage is not a normal death. This is a murder by hospitals. The state and central government have a hand to play. On one side the Health Minister is saying there is no shortage of oxygen and on the other hand 400 people are dying every 24 hours. So murders are happening here,” he said, adding that Salmani died to shortage of oxygen. Iqrar, also 42, was infuriated while speaking to this reporter. “The government is wrong. The central government should ensure Delhi government gets complete oxygen. This is blatant injustice being done with the Delhi government, the central government is hiding their faults,” he said.

The backdrop of the anger in people is the Centre and Delhi government being at loggerheads with each other in the Delhi High Court for over a week now. The court has ordered the Centre to provide the requisite oxygen to the capital, but the government filed for a recall of the order. A second order was issued directing the centre to provide oxygen by midnight of 3 May, which was not complied with, leading to the Delhi high court asking why they should not initiate contempt of court proceedings against the Centre’s officials. In the latest there, the centre’s counsel responded with moving the SC, which has out a stay on the contempt show cause notice issued against the officials of the Centre.

Also Read: SC Stays Delhi HC’s Contempt Notice to Centre Over Oxygen Supply

Shamin, the caretaker, told us that often fights break out between families and the staff as they want them to follow customs that one can not do with COVID anymore.
Shamin, the caretaker, told us that often fights break out between families and the staff as they want them to follow customs that one can not do with COVID anymore.

While the courts continue to hear petitions and pleas, bodies kept coming one after the other into the graveyard. There were often arguments breaking out between those who work at the cemetery and the families of COVID victims.

“Yes, fights do break out. When someone dies of COVID there are things that we are not able to do during burial. Like washing the dead body, placing stones on the body so the mud does not fall directly on it and tilting the body a bit before the burial. People continue to insist that we do those things for those who have died of COVID as well. This we cannot do, neither is it in the protocol and nor is it safe for us. When we disagree, they get angry with us,” he explained.

‘Not Allowed to Take Sister to Family Graveyard’

Shoukat Ali Khan’s elder sister Sanjeeda Khan, mother of four, was buried the same day. He wanted to take her to the family crematorium in Azadpur, but the authorities flatly denied his request. “The Azadpur cemetery is close to home and several other elders of the family are buried there. They said that she was allotted to go to Delhi Gate and their people will come with us and be present for the cremation to oversee the entire thing,” he said, breaking down. “She has two children who are still unmarried, they had so many dreams, now (without their mother) they remain unfulfilled.”

Shoukat sent us a photograph of his sister with two of her children.
Shoukat sent us a photograph of his sister with two of her children.

Unlike several other families that never got to be admitted in a hospital, Sanjeeda was. Shoukat says they were relieved that at least they were in emergency and therefore, in safe hands. “But even in emergency they did not take care of (my sister) properly as there was a lot of rush of patients due to COVID. One doctor was taking care of 40 to 50 patients, so we understand what the doctors were going through. They did try,” he says.

He says the virus has been deadly for his family and sever others he knows. “We are all going through the same thing and age does not matter at all. The same night my sister died a 28-year-old girl succumed to COVID as well. No one is safe, no one,” he says, breaking down again.

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