Everyone has to use them, but signs are visible that few like to think about them. Barring exceptions, this is the overwhelming opinion of people looking after crematoriums and burial grounds in Delhi.
A handful of NGOs and charitable organisations run the cremation grounds in the capital, with little or no support from government agencies. A few that are maintained by the civic bodies are smaller and not as well maintained as those by the NGOs and other organisations.
Quiet in its solitude and sorrow, the children’s burial ground at Bela Road near Red Fort is unmarked. There is no board. The gate leading to it is easy to miss in the speeding rush of the ring road. The new ring road bypass runs over a part of the cemetery. The staff on duty do not like to talk.
Fresh earth, tonnes of it, has been thrown over one side of the children’s burial ground to ensure stray dogs do not dig and disturb the final resting places. However, the mounds of earth also contain plastic and garbage. The caretaker on duty says it will “probably” be cleaned up if and when burials start on this side of the ground. The side used at present is better maintained. The earth is pressed smooth for the burials.
An electric crematorium nearby has been closed and abandoned for a “long time”, say locals. Buildings in the area have been taken over by the malaria department, and the horticulture department of the MCD. The civic body takes care of the upkeep of the grounds and has placed flowering plants all the way to the entrance. The parking lot built for the electric crematorium is now used by rickshaw pullers while overgrown shrubs have taken over the paved area.
On the issue of maintenance of crematoriums, MCD spokesperson Yogendra Maan says discussions are on to shut down electric crematoriums, as they “use too much electricity” and are “not economical”. The MCD is considering setting up more CNG crematoriums, adds Mann.
At the Lodhi crematorium, which has the only functional electric crematorium in the city at present, staff say most people prefer wood pyres, though at least two to three families choose electric cremation every day. According to an IIT Kanpur study, an estimated 216 kg of wood is required for cremation of one body.
Delhi’s oldest and best known crematorium, the Nigambodh Ghat, has seen work on its appearance in recent years. The Agrawal Samaj Society was given charge of the ghat in 2011. The Lodhi crematorium near Sarai Kale Khan bus depot is run by the Arya Samaj Society. Other crematoriums have also been handed over to various NGOs.
Suman Kumar Gupta, chairman of the Agrawal Samaj Society, points to improvements made at the Nigambodh Ghat — beautified gates, statues of gods and goddesses, and platforms to keep bodies for pre-cremation rituals.
The society has also set up a digital display board to show the names of the deceased and the ‘chita number’ being used for a particular cremation. An ‘asthi griha’ is under construction to store the remains after cremation till they can be taken away for immersion by families . Glass-covered waiting areas are also being built for mourners.
The ghat, however, is not without problems. At present, the only crematorium in the city which a CNG-run cremation area, the six CNG-run chitas are not as smoothly operated as the wood crematorium. The machines are kept in a hall next to the wood cremation area and the open windows allow smoke and smell from pyres to waft in towards mourners. Then, there are mechanical problems to deal with too.
“It is not an easy job. Many times, people fight with us about how much time the body is taking to burn,” says ghat supervisor Avdhesh Sharma.
According to data submitted by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation to the Delhi High Court in August last year, 14,99,773 quintal of wood was used up by eight crematoriums under it in 2014-15. The six crematoriums under the South Delhi Municipal Corporation used up 39,877 quintals. The East Delhi Corporation could not disclose data on the amount of wood used. The corporations also informed the court that no free fuel wood had ever been supplied to them by any government agency.
NGOs that run the various ghats say they have “contractors” who get wood from various sources. “Contractors buy from various government department auctions… We also get wood from Uttar Pradesh,” says Manoj, who supervises work at Nigambodh Ghat.
Vinod, who works at a crematorium in East Delhi, is more open about “dhanda” involved in sourcing wood.
“Most of the wood, at least in East Delhi, comes from illegal tree cutting in UP. There are a number of small contractors who supply wood,” he says. The supply from “legitimate” contracts in Delhi is a very small part of the demand, he adds.