At Death's Door: Funeral Workers Endure Bad Pay, High Risk, Long Hours as Covid-19 Ravages Lives

·5-min read

As more deaths were reported in second wave of coronavirus infection, the workload of staff at the crematoria and graveyards in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal has doubled in the last few days. Even after compromising with their own safety and working for longer hours, these frontline workers are struggling to meet their basic needs at home due to the small amount they are paid.

Most of these workers, who are generation care-takers of the graveyards or crematoriums, are still continuing with this “service” as they consider it as their family tradition.

However, as the death toll mounting, the local trusts running these graveyards or crematoriums, have now employed contingency workers with a pay of Rs 300-500 per day for cutting wood, managing funeral pyres and other related work.

Moreover, the crematorium workers, hearse van drivers, security guards and other staffers draw a monthly salary of around Rs 5,000-7,000, a dismal amount keeping such unprecedented times in mind. Some of them get annual hike of 5-10 per cent, while others wait for 4-5 years for the same.

Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat, Subhas Nagar Vishram Ghat and Jhada burial ground are three dedicated facilities for those who died due to Covid-19. These facilities also accept bodies of those who died due to any other reason.

Since a continuous surge was reported in number of deaths due to Covid-19 infection, daily wage earners were now also roped in for the cremation job. Shahwez Sikandar, a social worker from old city said, daily wagers have agreed to take up the cremation task as they no other work at present due to lockdown restrictions.

Bhupendra Neel, who belongs to a family of crematorium caretakers in Subhas Nagar Vishram Ghat, said that he has no complaints on payments as he undertakes the job as a ‘seva’ (service) which his forefather also did.

Pradeep Kanojia, a worker from Bhadbhada Ghat, said that he earns bread and butter for the family with the Ghat’s grant and 'dakshina' (fee) being offered to him by families of the deceased. “There is no government support and I had to borrow Rs 30,000 for my daughter's marriage last year,” said Kanojia.

“To earn money for their families, several workers have taken up this risky cremation job now,” said one of the trustees of a crematorium in Bhopal, on the condition of anonymity. He added that they get to earn upto Rs 1,000-1,500 per day.

On being asked about the fear of dealing with the bodies of coronavirus patients, he said, “Last year, the workers had to wait for PPE kits, but fortunately they are getting such safety kits this year.”

According to the guidelines on disposal of bodies by the Health Ministry, the crematorium, burial ground staff should be sensitised and take care that Covid-19 does not pose any additional risk to them.

But unfortunately, despite working in such a close proximity of Covid-19 infected bodies, these workers have not been considered as frontline workers yet for vaccination drive. Keeping the safety of everyone in mind, the ghats and burial grounds took the responsibility of getting all their workers vaccinated on their own as and when allowed as per their age group.

Moreover, to make sure that their family members don’t get infected, several workers are living in rented accommodations. “I had contracted the virus along with my family but we all recovered successfully,” said Shobhraj Sukhwani, manager of Subhas Nagar crematorium.

Mamtesh Sharma, Secretary of Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat, said that tea, snacks and food are being arranged everyday for the workers and visitors with the help of local people. “We are fortunate that people are supporting us to buy wood as these days we need around 550 tonnes of wood for cremation,” said Sharma, adding that the facility also has government timber supply.

Earlier, Bhopal Municipal Corporation had reportedly agreed to pay Rs 5,000 per cremation but as the number of deaths due to Covid-19 surged, the civic body backtracked and asked these facilities to levy user charges to generate revenue.

“None has any interest in our welfare of facilities except for approaching us in case of any death or for getting numbers of the daily funerals. It is utter neglect from government and society,” said a trust office bearer.

On initiative of an organisation 'Sarokar', being run by BJP state secretary Rahul Kothari, around 50 workers of three crematoriums were offered life insurance cover by LIC under the group insurance policy. “It was heartening that employees of these facilities who are putting up tireless works greeted me on the initiative and I also got calls from many cities as people wanted to enquire about the novel scheme," Kothari told News18 on phone. Rehan Golden, in charge of the Jhada burial ground, said that the employees who work over 12 hours and have blisters in palms digging graves have something to cheer with the risk cover officered to them.

Sprawled in around 14-acre, Bhadbhada crematorium received 628 Covid-19 dead bodies from April 1-27. The Jhada burial ground saw 190 bodies of Covid-19 patients and 139 of those died due to other reasons from April 1-28. The Subhas Nagar crematorium has disposed 313 bodies from March 29 to April 27.

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