Updated: May 1, 2021 1:22:08 am
The mobile phone rings incessantly and never ceases to stop. This time it is a family of six, all Covid-19 positive and locked in with the body of their grandfather for six hours.
Answering the phone call is Jitender Singh Shunty (59), exhausted yet determined. The former MLA makes them a promise that he has been making to several hundred people every day in East Delhi. “I am coming there. We will cremate the body. He will not be alone. Please rest and recover.”
This was his 30th phone call on Friday afternoon. Shunty gets an average of 500 phone calls asking for a range of services. But mostly, Shunty has been helping people in East Delhi cremate the dead. His son and wife have tested positive for the coronavirus. Four of his staff have tested positive and one driver, Arif Khan (55), lost his life to the virus. Yet, Shunty labours on. “The deaths in east Delhi have increased three-fold. We burn bodies till 11 pm.”
He sleeps in his car at a parking lot in Jhilmil Colony where a fleet of 18 ambulances and hearse vans are parked. He has set up an office at Seemapuri crematorium where he coordinates with 22 volunteers from his organisation –– Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal.
Shunty says that he has cremated over 800 bodies in the month of April and sees a disturbing pattern. “Most of the people found dead inside their homes are young people in their 30s. They belong to middle-class families working as managers, financiers, shop keepers. They all died due to the oxygen crises,” Shunty said.
The Indian Express had on Thursday reported that while the official toll in the last 10 days (April 18 to April 27) is 3,049, the number of people laid to rest as per Covid protocol at the 23 MCD-run crematoriums and cemeteries is 6,958. Furthermore, a total of 5,111 people were laid to rest as per regular protocols.
On a daily basis, Shunty and his team track those who died inside their homes by scrolling through social media posts. They enter homes by calling the local beat staff who break open the doors.
Raja Hashmi (32), a linguistic teacher at a private college in Dishad Garden, is a volunteer. He helps sanitise the unclaimed bodies, pack them in disposable bags and helps on cremating bodies.
“I am a Muslim and help in Hindu cremations. In death all are equal. There is a scarcity of staff. No family member of a Covid patient comes to the funeral. So I am there for them,” Hashmi said.
Shunty and his staff work 15 hours in a day. Shunty wakes up at 6 am and starts attending to phone calls and chalks out the day’s itinerary snaking through narrow lanes in east Delhi. Most of the locals refuse to talk to him or even offer a glass of water.
Around 25 years ago, he saw a man who was collecting burnt wood at Nigambodh crematorium and thought he was a thief. “It was later I found that he did not have money to buy wood to cremate his son,” Shunty said. This incident and his love for Bhagat Singh propelled Shunty to move out of his business of sale and purchase of cars to helping in transport of bodies from hospitals to crematoriums.
In the last ten days, Shunty has been witness to many horrific scenes that he has never seen before. “I have seen little girls carry their father’s body. I have seen families stuck at home with their dead relatives for hours, people come in their cars and drop the bodies out on stretchers without saying a word,” Shunty said.
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