The morning India reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases ever, Ashu Rai had to show 13-year-old Himanshu—who lost his older brother to the disease—where to pay the fee to cremate his body. Then Rai started the impossible task of looking for a spot for the cremation.
There were no spots left, so he put stacks of wood for the cremation on a walkway between glowing funeral pyres.
India’s graveyards and crematoriums are overwhelmed with deaths from COVID-19, and Rai is just one of the dozens of cremators trying to manage the surge in the capital city New Delhi’s largest crematorium, Nigambodh Ghat.
“In the past week, our workload has increased drastically,” Rai told VICE World News. “I used to cremate three to five bodies every day before the pandemic, but after this second wave, I am cremating more than 15 bodies a day alone.”
The 20-year-old lit up a cigarette as dozens of bodies burned around him by the Yamuna river bank in New Delhi.
“I don’t feel anything when I see a dead body,” the crematorium worker said. “Maybe I don’t want to feel anything. I drink two bottles of beer every day before coming to work.”
India, which has nearly 1.4 billion people, has set a global record of new COVID-19 infections every day since April 22. More than 320,000 people tested positive on Sunday alone, pushing India’s total reported infections beyond 17.3 million.
The numbers are staggering and so is the number of bodies being cremated and buried.
According to the government’s COVID-19 tracker, 2,771 people died from COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the number of India’s total fatalities from the virus to 197,894 people. In New Delhi, a city of 21 million people, more than 1,795 people died this week. Experts say that the real death count far exceeds official figures.
“I used to cremate three to five bodies every day before the pandemic, but after this second wave, I am cremating more than 15 bodies a day alone.”
India’s overworked and underpaid crematorium workers, who often face caste-based discrimination as Dalits, are the invisible warriors of India’s COVID-19 crisis.
The Dalit community is considered the lowest in the Hindu caste system, which is over 3,000 years old and divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups dictating their standing in Indian society.
They work 12-hour shifts, earning only Rs 10,000 ($134) a month, and can easily be spotted in crematoriums: unlike the families of the deceased, they rarely wear personal protective gear (PPE).
“We have received PPEs, but we don’t wear it. We work in a furnace, we won’t be able to breathe in that suit,” Rai said.
Rai doesn’t wear protective gear at work but he said that when he goes home, he takes some safety precautions. “I take off my clothes and take a shower before interacting with my family,” he said.
Rai’s father and brothers also work at the crematorium. “I used to see my father working here, so I joined him when I was 16,” he said. “After I started working here, I stopped being scared of death. Death is a part of life and it is nothing to be afraid of and this is why I am not scared of corona.”
Dipanshu Rathore, a rights activist at the Asia Dalit Rights Forum, explained that it is common to see sons of cremation workers follow in their fathers’ footsteps because few jobs are available to the underprivileged Dalit community.
“Who will do all the dirty and dangerous work? It’s the Dalits. People don’t want to get their hands dirty, so they call Dalits to do their dirty job for them,” Rathore told VICE World News.
In the middle of dozens of burning pyres, Rai arranged wood for the cremation of Himanshu’s brother. Then he started reading Hindu prayers or mantras and asked Himanshu’s family members to help lift the body onto the woodpile.
“Who will do all the dirty and dangerous work? It’s the Dalits. People don’t want to get their hands dirty, so they call Dalits to do their dirty job for them.”
Drenched in sweat, Rai put the remaining wood on the body. He took out a piece of cloth and covered his face and head with it.
“This cloth does two jobs for me. First, it absorbs the sweat and second, when I hang it on my shoulder, people think that I am a Brahmin priest,” Rai said, laughing at the irony.
In Hindu culture, Brahmins are considered to be the highest in the caste system.
The COVID-19 crisis has created a unique space for India’s Dalit cremators. During Hindi cremation burial ceremonies, the prayers are almost always read by upper-caste Brahmins.
Asked if he is Brahmin, Rai laughed and said, “Of course not, but in these times, we are all Brahmins.”
“Almost everyone asks about my caste because everyone wants a Brahmin to do the rituals and not the Dalits, but they aren’t available,” he said. “We are.”
Rathore said that cremators are often discriminated against by other Dalit communities. “People don’t shake their hands or offer them water because they think the cremators might bring them bad luck.”
Bezwada Wilson, founder of Safai Karamchari Abhiyan, an organisation that works for the rights and welfare of sanitation workers, told VICE World News, “No one knows how many cremation workers have tested positive for this deadly disease and no one knows how many have died as a result. It is because government officials don’t see the cremation workers and sanitation workers as human.”
But the job of a cremation worker is more than just cremating dead bodies. In Delhi’s largest crematorium, so many were seen counselling grieving families too.
During the cremation rituals of his brother, Himanshu was scared. Rai held Himanshu’s hand and whispered consoling words into his ear as they both lit the pyre that held his brother’s body.
“I told him that his brother’s soul is trapped in the body and we have to free him. If we don’t light the body, he won’t be able to go to god and will be trapped in this place forever,” Rai said.
As Rai completed the cremation, he asked the family to follow him for the remaining paperwork. He knew the distressed family needed help to navigate the crematorium’s procedures. “Many people who come here are illiterate and it is very difficult for them to fill all the forms. In such cases, I myself fill up their forms and complete the complicated cremation procedures,” Rai said.
When Rai was done, he went down to the river to smoke but was soon called back up to the crematorium. Eight more bodies had arrived.
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