It was around 4 am on July 24 when Bellam Srinivas, an IT professional, received a phone call from the United States. The middle-aged woman at the other end heaved a sigh of relief. She told Srinivas that her 75-year-old uncle had expired three days ago after battling with Covid-19 and that the body was lying at the Gandhi Hospital mortuary in Hyderabad with no one to claim it. The entire family of the deceased man, Narasimham, was in quarantine, with some of them having tested positive for the disease.
In the next few hours, Srinivas’s team reached out to the authorities concerned and the cremation was completed by 4 pm that day. The thank you call that he got that evening, showering prayers and blessings, Srinivas says was priceless.
A group of 10 IT professionals, Srinivas and his friends came together at the start of the pandemic to serve the needy. They started with distributing food packets and grocery kits, and moved on to arranging last rites of Covid patients, buying their own hearses with the help of the police and a corporate donor. Till now, Srinivas estimates, they have helped carry out cremation or funerals of 220 people.
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Says team member and activist K Sai Teja, “The last ride to a cremation ground 6 km away can take more effort than a flight ticket to a foreign country. We realised this when the mother of one of our friends passed away. The trauma and agony caused by things like arranging an ambulance to the graveyard are immense.”
A few days ahead of July 24, Srinivas had fielded another caller from the US who requested him to help with the last rites of his father, a 70-year-old who had died of Covid-19, while his 65-year-old mother was still in hospital. All the formalities, including settling of the medical bills, were organised by his team.
Apart from Srinivas and Sai Teja, the team includes Ankit Raj, Anumod Thomas, Pradeep Gadicherala, M Prashanth, Raman Jeet Singh, U Surender, V Jagadeeshan, and Vinay Vangala. They finish their eight-hour office timings before volunteering for the service.
For the first vehicle, the 10 pooled in their own money, with the Cyberabad police helping them secure a donation from Silicon Business Solutions Private Limited. Within a few weeks, they had tied up first, with the Hyderabad police and added one more hearse, and then the Rachakonda police, thus covering the entire Greater Hyderabad region.
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Srinivas says between July and September they got around 900 calls, most of them people seeking ambulance services between home and hospital. “The number of calls are declining and that’s a good sign,” he says. Of the 220 last rites organised to date, the team bore the expenses for 40 as the families were too poor.
“Our hearse service is free, and in cases where families cannot afford the expenses, we bear the charges at the graveyard or crematorium too,” says Sai Teja, adding that the average cost per cremation is around Rs 10,000. “We just want to ensure dignified last rites.”
While flagging off their first hearse vehicle on July 4, Cyberabad Police Commissioner VC Sajjanar had recalled the difficulties family members of Covid victims were facing, particularly due to the stigma involved, and appreciated the team’s efforts.
While the case fatality ratio is now around 0.4% per cent in Telangana, far below the national average, Sai Teja says they expect “a second wave”. “When we finally get no more calls from distressed families, we will donate our vehicles to remote villages where commuting for medical needs is still an issue. Till then, we are on the job.”