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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Where do we take our dead?

BMC runs 64 cemeteries and crematoria in the city, most of which are unsightly, thanks to filth, overgrown vegetation and unrestricted access for locals, many of whom drink and gamble there.

Updated: February 26, 2014 6:35:05 pm
Hindu Shamshan Bhoomi at Worli. Hindu Shamshan Bhoomi at Worli.

BMC runs 64 cemeteries and crematoria in the city, most of which are unsightly, thanks to filth, overgrown vegetation and unrestricted access for locals, many of whom drink and gamble there. The other 138 run by private trusts are making a killing with exorbitant charges, say Tabassum Barnagarwala and Sharvari Patwa.

Walking into the Worli Shamshan Bhoomi, one encounters shards of broken beer bottles littered all over. With slums like Anand Nagar and Jijamata Nagar encroaching into the 18-acre Hindu crematorium, young boys playing cricket even as a dead body is brought for final rites is a common sight, as are loose packs of playing cards and empty cigarette boxes. To quote the crematorium’s former caretaker, it resembles more a casual pub than a place where we bid farewell to the dead.

Worli Shamshan Bhoomi is one of the 64 cemeteries and crematoria managed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which are in similar state. Apart from poorly maintained burial spaces, Mumbai is also left with fewer places for burying the dead.

Over 25 proposals to repair and renovate crematoria in the city have been pending with the civic body for over two years. Civic officials say almost 40 of them need only small repairs at the level of ward offices.

WIth the city witnessing close to one lakh deaths every year, several communities have requested civic authorities for proper burial spaces. Rais Shaikh, a local corporator, says, “For a person whose family member dies, a greater worry is whether the burial or cremation will be easy to pull off. The existing cemeteries are in bad shape. We are recycling a space in just 12-13 months.”

According to BMC’s health department, it takes 18 months for a body to entirely decompose, after which the same space can be used for another burial. However, with space crunch, some cemeteries are forced to use the same burial space in less than 18 months.

What ails city’s crematoria and cemeteries

“We had gone to bury the child of my friend in Worli’s crematorium at night. There was no streetlight. We had to use our car’s head-light to conduct with the final rites. There is a solitary guard. The grills and taps from the crematorium’s washroom are missing and BMC has not replaced it till now,” says Abhijeet Patil, a businessman.

Several crematoria have non-functional pyres because locals have stolen their iron grills. In Worli’s Shamshan Bhoomi, only five out of the 10 pyres are working. A clerk who was formerly assigned to maintain the death registry at the crematorium says, “There is a lot of space for burial and cremation. However, since the health department has not spent on regular repairs, half the space has been wasted. In the Hindu crematorium, by rule, there can be no growth of trees permitted near graves of children. However, the tree department has not done anything about it. The graves are sometimes uprooted due to trees.”

In some civic-run cemeteries, labourers have to work in multiple shifts with 2-3 bodies coming in at the same time because of staff shortage. At the Goregaon community cemetery, the caretaker says, “We don’t know who to attend first.  Such situations are very sensitive and the shortage of workers can put us into trouble.”

A senior civic official says since most of these posts are in reserved category, recruitment takes time.

BMC’s cop-out

The job of maintaining all burial grounds and crematoria is of the civic health department. However, Mumbai Newsline found that repairs and maintenance of all crematoria and cemeteries do not feature in its priority list. There is no data to suggest which ward needs additional burial space.

Deputy executive health officer Dr Shantaram Naik, who handles the city’s crematoria and cemeteries, says, “I have a lot of work to manage and so this issue has been pending. But we will look into it soon.”  According to him, plans for repairs of certain burial spaces are in the pipeline.

The city has a total of 202 crematoria and cemeteries, of which BMC manages 64. Of these 64, there are 43 crematoria, 13 cemeteries for Muslims (Shias, Sunnis, Dawoodi Bohras) and eight Christian cemeteries. Most of them, however, do not have proper security and are poorly maintained.

In December last year, a Worli resident, Abhijeet Patil, filed a complaint highlighting the urgent need for repairs in Shamshan Bhoomi in the area. “Till now, no civic authority has taken any cognizance of my complaint despite several calls,” he said.

Out of the 138 crematoria and cemeteries handled by private trusts, there are 35 crematoria for Hindu, 55 cemeteries for Muslims, 41 for Christians and seven for other communities like Baha’i, Chinese, Armenian and Jewish. But corporators say while private trusts are doing a good job of the upkeep of the crematoria and cemeteries, they charge high prices from kin of the deceased.

“BMC has kept burial and cremation free for people. But if a Muslim goes to bury his dead family member, he is easily charged Rs 4,000,” Shaikh says. For Christians, the charge begins at Rs 10,000.

BMC provides 300 kilograms of wood free for a cremation, besides basic utilities worth Rs 900. However, since civic-run burial grounds are in a shoddy state, people often opt for private burial grounds. According to civic authorities, even privately-managed cemeteries and crematoria are supposed to be free-of-charge, but there is no check on the trusts that handle them.

Shrinking space

While the existing crematoria are in dire need of repairs, at least 15 new crematoria have been proposed in the past three years.
Most of the burial grounds and crematoria are in south Mumbai, owing to its proximity to three major state-run hospitals — JJ, KEM and Nair. This makes it difficult for the people living in suburbs, while piling up the pressure on crematoria in Worli and Dadar.

The caretaker at the Shivaji Park crematorium in Dadar says, “If there a lot of bodies, we have to work fast and sometimes leave half-burnt bodies. The bones are left in the pyre, but we cannot do anything about it because we have a queue.”
In a space-starved city, future reservations for crematoria in the new Development Plan (DP) is definitely a challenge.

Communities, their problems

Christians: As per BMC data, there are eight civic body-run and 41 privately run cemeteries for Christians in the city, but the community members claim there are only three proper cemeteries for them – in Mulund, Oshiwara and Sewree.
“A majority of graveyards that BMC data refers to belong to churches in the city, which are small ones and for Catholics only. Non-Catholics have very few options,” a Protestant says, adding that churches likes the ones in Bandra, Borivali and Amboli have burial facility only for Catholics.

Several pleas have been made to the BMC about lack of space and poor upkeep of the existing cemeteries, to no avail.

Dr Abraham Mathai, former vice-chairman of Maharashtra Minorities Commission, says, “Five years ago, I had raised the issue. Back then, BMC had provided some funds for repair work in Mulund and Oshiwara cemeteries. But these cemeteries still need a lot of money for maintenance. No authority is ready to take up the responsibility.”

Abraham George, another Christian, says, “The Oshiwara and Sewree cemeteries are almost full. Earlier, we had the concept of buying a space for grave, But because of lack of space now, graves are recycled.” George adds that for the last 15 years, he has been paying for maintenance of his father-in-law’s grave. “I have spent some Rs 10,000 for upkeep and cleaning of the area surrounding his grave.”

Muslims: The city has 13 BMC-owned and 55 privately run Muslim cemeteries, which include those for Shias, Sunnis and Dawoodi Bohras.

According to Shaikh, though there is no charge for burying a body, private trusts charge as much as they want since BMC does not govern them.

Here too, of the 13 requests sent for repair and additional spaces for Muslim cemeteries, five are still pending with the BMC while four have been rejected. The remaining three have been “in-process” for a long time. Eight of these requests pertained to additional burial grounds in areas like Dahisar, Malad, Juhu, Bandra, Vikhroli, Kanjurgmarg and Bhandup.

With just one big cemetery in the eastern suburbs in Deonar, people living in Mulund have to come to Deonar for burial.

Hindus: Civic officials agree that lack of spending on infrastructure and maintenance is a major issue for both BMC-run and trusts-run crematoria.

BJP corporator Manoj Kotak, who recently came up with a proposal to revamp BMC crematoria at Mulund, says, “There is overgrown vegetation in these crematoria. Basic infrastructure such as gates and security is missing. It is shameful that the dead have to be cremated in such dirty areas.”

A civic official at Mulund local ward office says, “There is limited staff for maintenance of crematoria. Sometimes, just one gardener is available for all the crematoria in the ward. During rains, weeds and grass grow very fast, which makes it very difficult for one gardener to maintain the crematorium.”

“Many crematoria don’t have a proper access road and have litter and garbage strewn around the entrances,” says Kotak.

Parsis: The civic body has so far not made any provision for an entirely separate crematorium for the Parsi community. Since Parsis conventionally follow the ritual of laying down the dead in the Tower of Silence (situated at Malabar Hills), a very small percentage has actually opted for crematoria. Dinshaw Rusi Mehta, chairman of Bombay Parsi Punchayet, says, “The Punchayet only follows the old ritual where a body is allowed to be devoured by vultures in the Tower of Silence. Only a small section has gone for electric cremation.”

According to Jehangir Patel, editor of a Parsi magazine, only six per cent of Parsis opt for electric crematoria. “Around 700 bodies are sent to the Tower of Silence and only 40-45 are taken to crematoria for Hindus.”

However, Dinshaw Tamboly, chairman of World Zoroastrian Organisation Trust, said, “Slowly, people have started opting for crematoria since the traditional methods are not feasible. If we have more prayer halls, then more Parsis will come to crematoria. Right now, BMC has allotted only one prayer hall for fixed timings at Worli.”

Future roadmap

The civic department will focus on Eastern and Western suburbs for increase in burial spaces, cemeteries, and crematoria. Ideally, there should be a provision of 1.6 hectares of cemeteries and crematoria per ward. Currently, as per the Existing Land Use, 2012, burial spaces occupy a total of 122.38 hectares in the city.

Pankaj Joshi, head of Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), says, “The DP of 2013-2014 has made a special provision for reserving spaces like burial grounds as per the ward’s demography. Whenever we receive any request for additional space, an evaluation will be done and adequate space will be allotted.”

A total of Rs 20 crore has been allocated for 2014-2015 for repairs, beautification and conversion of burial grounds and crematoria. Of this, around Rs 1.6 crore have been allocated for reconstruction activities in Tagore Nagar cemetery (Vikhroli), Oshiwara Municipal Hindu cemetery, Sagbaug Cemetery (Andheri) and Barve Nagar municipal cemetery.

A major development of Rafiq Nagar Kabrasthan in Govandi has been planned at a cost of Rs 4 crore allocated in the budget.
The BMC has also started the process of converting wood-based crematoria into those based on piped natural gas for reducing use of wood and saving cost of the whole process of cremation. According to an official from BMC’s mechanical and electrical department, while nine crematoria have been shortlisted in phase-I, 12 other have been allotted for conversion in phase-II.

The nine crematoria – Mulund composite, Dahanu (Borivali), Daulat Nagar, Amboli (Andheri), Charai (Chembur), Sion, Shivaji Park, Babhai (Borivali) and Underai (Malad) – will be converted into total PNG services in a phase-wise manner. While initially a single gas-based pyre will be installed, more pyres will be added to replace the wood and electric ones later. The whole process is expected to take five years.

While no money was allocated in 2013-2014 budget for stationery, the BMC has allocated Rs 5.6 lakh for procurement of tables, cupboards and racks.


Milind Mhaske, project director at NGO Praja, says, “Corporators have received complaints from locals about lack of burial space. But since there is no gap analysis done by BMC, they have no pointers to work on. Data must be prepared on respective wards’ population, break-up of communities and the number of deaths in each ward.”

Currently, burial spaces have been categorised under medical facilities. However, in absence of a designated post exclusively for crematoria, the issue has been overlooked for a long time. The BMC needs to create a post for monitoring all cemeteries and crematoria, besides urgently recruiting more staff such as security guards, gardeners, sweepers and clerks.

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