When Razi Khan, who runs a construction business in Pune, decided to bury an elderly woman who succumbed to Covid-19 in April, he did not know he would be burying four to five bodies a day.
The two family members of the woman were under home quarantine and there was no one to perform her final rites — a problem that most relatives of those who die due to Covid-19 are encountering.
Khan and a few volunteers of Popular Front of India (PFI) buried her in a graveyard at Shivaji Nagar. Within a few days, Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), in which the BJP is in a majority, issued a letter to PFI to help bury bodies. It cost the PMC no money, as PFI volunteers were doing it as a free service.
Two months on, on Tuesday, the PMC cancelled its arrangement with PFI — hours after BJP leader and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis questioned the tie-up between the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and PFI for burials. He said the PFI was an “anti-national” group and alleged that it had played a role in the Delhi riots earlier this year.
— Devendra Fadnavis (@Dev_Fadnavis) June 2, 2020
As Fadnavis’ tweet went viral, PMC officials informed PFI that they had been asked to cancel their agreement. However, PFI volunteers went on to bury two more bodies on Tuesday, as BJP corporators in Pune suddenly realised that they were not in step with what Fadnavis was saying.
PFI volunteers in Pune have buried a total of 107 bodies till now. The last body they lowered into a grave was that of Jameel Asif in Rehmat Baug cemetery at 1.30 am on Wednesday.
“It is sad that a pandemic has become a political issue. We saw that people were scared to touch bodies, so we wrote to PMC in April to offer help. We only did this to help in a pandemic… Too many people were dying and we just wanted to help,” Khan said.
In Mumbai, civic officials are yet to take a call on whether to back down in the face of Fadnavis’ attack or continue with the arrangement. PFI, in fact, had agreed to perform final rites of people of all faiths. PMC in April had trained 50 PFI volunteers — managers, businessmen and some from the IT sector — in burial and cremation protocol, provided them personal protective equipment and an ambulance.
Volunteers in Parbhani and Nanded also began aiding in cremation and burials. Across the state, 200 bodies have been buried by them, officials said.
Kashif Shaikh (35), a data architect in a IT company, said his parents were sceptical when he once announced he intended to facilitate in the final rites of a Covid-19 deceased. “We used to perform final rites while fasting, it was Ramzan. On some days, we ate a date in the crematorium to break our fast,” he added.
He has buried people from all religions. “The families would feel indebted for what we did. Most were helpless sitting at home or in an institution. Our work is not for one community,” Shaikh said. On one occasion, he spent six hours in a cemetery waiting to bury a body, as he wore an uncomfortable PPE.
While they follow all precautions, their only apprehension is the risk they might be exposing their families to.
In May, PFI volunteers in Mumbai decided to approach BMC to offer help after realising that several bodies were being cremated instead of being buried. Bodies were also piling up in morgues due to shortage of civic staff to dispose them. Mumbai has recorded 1,368 deaths till Tuesday.
BMC Additional Municipal Commissioner Suresh Kakani said a decision to allow PFI volunteers to bury Covid-19 bodies was taken on May 18, as the group volunteered and civic staff needed more hands on the job. “They wanted to do a good deed, and our staff is overburdened. They had helped in other cities, so we decided to take them on board,” he added.
Choudhary said they are yet to be approached by any Mumbai hospital to conduct final rites. “With this becoming a political issue now, we are not sure if we will be allowed to help,” he added.
In Nanded, Aamer Khan has helped bury one Covid-19 deceased. There are 25 volunteers in the district. “Here, the relatives are not stepping forward for burial. Even the civic staff is scared. We took up this job because these people deserve a farewell,” he said.
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