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Stretched ambulance workers, lonely priest, PPE shop as Nigam Bodh adapts to Covid

In the season of the virus, caution is abundant, and a typical cremation is longer, harder work.

Written by Ashna Butani , Jignasa Sinha | New Delhi |
June 17, 2020 1:53:12 am
Stretched ambulance workers, lonely priest, PPE shop as Nigam Bodh adapts to Covid Until two weeks ago, Sanjay was only involved in helping families as a pundit. (Express Photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

As workers prepared numerous pyres every hour at Nigambodh Ghat on Tuesday afternoon, announcements to maintain social distancing and keep coronavirus at bay blended with the sound of the Gayatri Mantra.

Two ambulances were stationed right outside the grounds. Rohtash (48) an attendant from Lok Nayak Hospital, sat outside nonchalantly. “We are given PPE kits but I just took it off. In the ambulance, I carried five-six bodies today. In total, 16 bodies have been brought from Lok Nayak today.”

Most families asked the attendants to allow them to see the face of their loved ones one last time, but Rohtash does not allow it. “We are not permitted to show the face of the person after we have carried it here. The body is identified in the hospital and a death certificate is made. After that, we just have to carry the bodies to the crematorium and then to the pyre,” he said.

The job takes its toll, but Rohtash has learnt to keep his calm amid the chaos. “It does not matter how a person has died — it can be a burn, a murder or corona. We just have to do our job,” he added, as he smoked with his colleagues outside the ghat.

The smoke, ash and heat inside the ghat did not seem to affect the workers. Every few minutes, 14-15 men carried carts of wooden logs from one end of the ghat to the crematorium ground.

The ghat has a capacity to cremate 101 bodies, of which 48 are reserved for Covid deaths.

Until two weeks ago, Sanjay Sharma (50) was only involved in helping families perform last rites with “pooja and mantra” as a pundit. Now, however, he is responsible for conducting the last rites of those who died of Covid.

“I don’t have time for anything. Can’t you see the number of people coming? I can’t have food or take breaks. Life is difficult, but I have been chosen to do this work,” he said.

In the season of the virus, caution is abundant, and a typical cremation is longer, harder work. Sharma breaks the wood into smaller pieces and sets it on the ground. Once ambulance workers place the body on the pyre, it is covered with more wooden logs and cloth.

Each family follows its own tradition — some wish for flowers on top, some others earthen pots near the bodies. After chanting mantras, the priest hands over the flame to a family member, clad in full PPE kit. The workers wear cloth masks.

Amar Singh, a cremation attendant appointed by the MCD, said, “Workers cannot wear PPE kits in the burning ghat since they are combustible. But they are all provided with masks and gloves.”

At the ghat entrance, Varun Chauhan (26) sells a curious mix of things — earthen pots, bottles of ghee, and PPEs. “I sell kits from Rs 500 to Rs 2,500. These kits come from factories across the city. It has become compulsory for the family member lighting the pyre to wear a PPE. But there are people who cannot afford it and I give it to them for free. There was a daily wage worker who lost his wife this morning. I gave him a kit with goggles and shoes for free. It is not only about profit, this is life and death,” he said.

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