A qabristan where graves are stacked on top of each other, a cemetery planning to reuse the same spot every five years — as space runs out in the capital, burying the dead is posing some unforeseen challenges. Indian Express looks at the scale of the problem, and the solutions at hand.
Mohammad Rashid does not remember if the graveyard was ever flat. The 30-year-old caretaker has lived within the premises of the Batla House Qabristan his entire life and all he has seen is new graves being dug over old ones, creating small hillocks. “My father was the caretaker here for at least six decades. In my memory, it has always been like this — graves piling on top of one another. At the highest point, there are some 30-40 graves. Now, the only little space left in the graveyard is at the periphery,” says Rashid, who took over after his father died two years ago. He, too, was buried on top of another grave. Now, Rashid and four others take care of the graveyard. Each grave here, including those on the periphery, has been used at least four-five times already, he says. Today, burying someone at the Qabristan costs an average of Rs 5,000.
According to the chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC), Zafarul Islam Khan, on paper the graveyard — spread over an area of about 60 bighas or 24 acres — is among the biggest ones in the capital. “But encroachment has left it much smaller. Houses built some years ago use the area in the periphery as their backyard; cars are parked inside. Encroachment increases every day as new houses are built,” he says.
As the capital’s population increases — from 13.85 million in 2001 to 16.75 million in 2011, as per Census data — space to bury the dead is fast shrinking. A recent study conducted by NGOs Human Development Society and Ullhas, at the behest of the DMC, shows that in two years, there will be no burial space left for Muslims, who make up 12.88 per cent of Delhi’s population. The Christian community — which is just 0.87 per cent of the capital’s total population — has a few more years, with the Dwarka and Burari cemeteries left with more space in comparison.
Walking through the Batla House graveyard is a challenge. A path runs around it, but to visit a grave at the centre, one has to step over many around it. Some are covered with tarpaulin as protection from erosion caused by rain, while a few have been dug up by a pack of dogs.
“My father was buried here 10 years ago. That grave has already been dug up for reuse. I remember where he was buried and come here whenever I get the time, even though the spot now bears the name of a different occupant. We understand there is no space here anymore and graves have to be reused, so we have made peace with it. But the graveyard is full of garbage and stray dogs. This is a place where the dead lie, but not in peace,” says Mohammad Kamar, a resident of Zakir Nagar. Meanwhile, graves at Christian cemeteries too are being reused. In August last year, the Indian Christian Cemetery Committee (ICCC) issued orders saying that the land for graves in Paharganj and Burari cemeteries will be given only for a period of five years, after which the space will be allotted to someone else. At these cemeteries, a kachcha (earthen) burial costs around Rs 10,000.
“In case anyone makes a pakka grave,” the order reads, “that will also be broken and remains will be shifted to niches. However, in case there is another death in the family within five years, the same grave can be used by them and then the grave will remain with them for another five years from the date of the second burial. This all has been done keeping in view the paucity of space and increasing need of graves.” The order has ruffled feathers within the Christian community.
“The committee should have pressured the government to give more space for graveyards; instead they are making compromises. How can a grave be dug up within five years? The body doesn’t even decompose by then. The community has been resorting to ‘doubling’ for several years now, wherein the same grave is reused to bury family members. This is acceptable to us. But if the graves are assigned to someone else, what do we have as a token of remembrance? And what happens to the remains that are dug up? They have mentioned in the order that niches will be built, but those haven’t come up yet. Why implement the order when the prerequisites are not in place?” says A Das (35), a south Delhi resident whose grandfather is buried at the Paharganj cemetery.
According to Penzy Morgan, the caretaker at the Paharganj cemetery, the practice of ‘doubling’ — where a grave is re-dug for family members — has been in place for over a decade. “We barely have any space for people whose family members are not buried here already. The community is angry. Some people built ornate graves and if these are dug up, there will be a pushback. There will be nothing left to commemorate the dead after the order,” says the 73-year-old, who was also the caretaker of the Burari cemetery till a decade ago.
Spread over six acres, the Paharganj cemetery houses close to 7,000 cemented and kachcha graves. Building cemented permanent graves is not allowed any longer. The plan to build niches for the remains from graves that are reused is yet to take off. “The idea was to transfer the remains from the graves to these shelf-like niches, so that people whose relatives or friends are buried here have a place to pay their respects. The idea was floated in 2014 but it has not been built yet. In this case, what will happen to the remains? The ICCC’s order should be implemented only when the niches are built, so each family gets a space for the remains of their loved ones,” says Morgan.
The former chairperson of the ICCC, Samson Nath, refused to answer questions on the delay in building the niches. The new chairperson is yet to take over. A former member of the ICCC says this was “the only option left”. “The government has not given space for a new graveyard in a long time. We have our own constraints. If a better suggestion comes along, I’m sure the new committee will implement it,” he says.
Officials from the Delhi government acknowledge the problem. “Several people have pointed to the lack of space for a basic right like burial. The Delhi government, however, is not the land-owning agency. Therefore, the question of us allotting land does not arise,” says a government spokesperson. The Delhi Development Authority, on its part, said they consider all land allotment requests that come their way. According to an official: “Being the land owning agency, we have to give land not just for graveyards or cemeteries but for other purposes as well such as parking, schools and landfills. We give land, depending on the demand from the corporation and availability.”
The paucity of space means that even Delhi’s newest cemetery in Dwarka does not allow permanent graves. “The previous members of the minorities commission had asked that a study be conducted on space available in cemeteries. The report will be out next month. It is a crucial issue for us. The right to space for burial is part of a community’s right to follow their religious beliefs and practices. Across the world, space is shrinking. In European countries, the state takes care of everybody, even the dead. In Delhi, cemeteries, such as the one in Dwarka Sector 24, are very well-planned and taken care of. We need to look at township planning closely. Also, families having to travel long distances to bury the dead is impractical. A family in Saket has to travel to Burari — this needs to be looked into,” says Anastasia Gill, a member of the DMC and a Catholic nun. Amidst uncertainty and space crunch, a few people have already started looking at ways to optimise space. The St Thomas Christian Cemetery in Tughlakabad has built a vault to bury the dead.
With the small traditional cemetery, built in the complex in 1997, already full, cemetery officials decided to build a ‘vertical cemetery’ with 300 crypt cells on two walls facing each other. A 50-foot pit was dug in the centre. Each cell measures six feet by two feet. It is also cheaper than the traditional burial, costing Rs 2,500. Once the bodies decompose, they will be pushed into the pit and ‘buried’ inside the earth. At the Idgah graveyard in Jhandewalan, too, a similar vault system is being followed. The bodies are kept in the vaults and once they decompose, the remains are pushed into a pit below.
“The vertical cemetery became operational in November 2015 and in the past two years, we have seen a very good response. Seventy burials have already taken place and more queries are coming in each day. At this rate, we will be full within four-five years, after which the cells will be ready for reuse. For the first two-three months after we started, not many people could understand the concept as it is new in north India. We borrowed the concept from Kerala, where these are common but on a smaller scale. In my knowledge, it is the biggest cemetery of its kind in Asia,” says Pastor A Donald, the secretary of the cemetery in Tughlakabad. “We had no option but to innovate. No new space for burial is being provided and transporting bodies to places such as Dwarka and Burari costs up to Rs 5,000. There are other charges as well. The rich can afford to take the bodies to Kerala or Mumbai or Jabalpur. Not everyone can afford this. However, there is growing acceptance within the community — we have had people from Hyderabad and Pune come to us and enquire about the cemetery,” he says.
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