“At this point, humanity is suffering. In this Covid-19 situation, I don’t know what even the government can do at this stage, ”said Manoj Patil, cable operator turned paramedic to SabrangIndia on May 3, 2021, on his way to his usual drop-off point: the crematorium .
Crematoriums and cemeteries became routine visiting spots for Patil, who devoted his waking hours to free transportation service after the driver escaped. Over the days, he began to pick up bodies left in apartments and on the streets. These were bodies that were allegedly left behind by frightened family members.
He tells us, “I used to get seven to eight calls from Muslim families asking me to take the patient’s body away. No one helped. They were too afraid to touch the body. Lately my uncle and I have managed to get young people together to help us, on condition that we pay them extra. They are still afraid. Even me, what can we do?
Remembering the crisis when he started the shift, he says the situation is a little better now. He hopes this is a positive effect of the foreclosure restrictions in Maharashtra. Still, Prateek Sheikh, responsible for entry into the district for Muslim burials, says the supply of bodies has not declined for Muslim cemeteries.
“There is no more space in the cemeteries. 800-year-old spaces are saturated. Where we used to take 25 to 30 bodies per month, we now have to house 100 people who have died. Today, we have started to dig up 10-year-old graves and dispose of the bodies there, ”Shaikh explains.
However, of greater concern was the current bodies that were being dumped in Covid bags which prolonged the decomposition process. Lack of space has always been a pressing problem for funeral homes. According to Shaikh, the district society has yet to leave more space to build new cemeteries despite repeated requests from local groups. The only company-supplied cemetery in Nashik is located approximately 15 km from the city. All the other establishments in the region are built by private entities.
“Another thing is that even in Muslim communities we have Sunni, Shia and other branches. These groups do not allow their dead to be kept together, which adds to the space problem. Meanwhile, the workforce on the ground is dwindling, ”Shaikh says.
The problem of shrinking space is not specific to Nashik or Muslim cemeteries. For example, the town of Mumbra in Thane district, known for its huge Muslim population, also reported increasing occupation of cemeteries. While the municipality has consistently recorded fewer than 30 active cases in the region since April 13, residents tell SabrangIndia that local cemeteries have reached 70 to 80 percent of total capacity.
Dr Abdul Qalam who runs the Covid service in Mumbra tells Sabrangindia the cases are higher than those reported last year. Although he says the situation is not as dire as in other parts of Maharashtra, he still encourages people to stay alert and adhere to social distancing and similar guidelines.
Meanwhile, St. John the Baptist Church in Thane posted the following message on its website on April 24:
“Due to the increased death toll during this pandemic, there is a shortage of graves. Therefore, in the event of the death of a loved one due to Covid-19, we urge you to go for cremation. Ashes can be brought in and buried in the graveyard or placed in a niche, which you can purchase … Additionally, we would like to communicate that burials may need to be held elsewhere if the situation worsens.
That same day, Thane reported 1,108 new positive cases. Of the three well-known Christian cemeteries in the area, the current predicament of St. John’s represents the growing concern of communities, who bury their dead by convention.
“These are not just ordinary graves. We also had three-year-old graves in which families collected the bones of the deceased for later rites. There is also no place for such burials. We don’t have funeral masses now either, ”says parishioner Vanessa Pinto, speaking to SabrangIndia.
She points out that the local parish is home to around a thousand families and wonders how the church should accommodate everything in the decades to come. Pinto also talks about how the administration previously promised a new burial site for the community, but to date has not cleared any areas for the same.
With the Christian cemetery in Sewri also running out of space in recent times, local municipalities must now be forced to respond to a long-standing demand from the population for new cemeteries. In 2017, the government of Maharashtra canceled part of the Goregaon Composite Cemetery for Christians living in the city’s western suburbs. The Bombay High Court had condemned the decision because even then, Mumbai, among other cities, lacked burial space, forcing communities to change burial practices, much like today.
As for Muslims, the community has waged a long and difficult battle with the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation, demanding more burial space since the 1970s. Yet, according to a midday report, the Minister of Minority Development State Minister Nawab Malik said there was no shortage and instead suggested digging 20 feet to allow two bodies to end up in one grave. A last resort which Muslims claim to have resorted to for a long time.
Back in Nashik, Patil continues his tours. While he’s happy that he doesn’t get as many distress calls as before, maybe 50% less than he says, there is still a crowd outside the cemeteries. His vehicle is often prevented from entering the lanes where people are preventing Covid bodies from entering.
“I can’t really take a roundabout route with an infected body in tow. Be it any religion, in the end people die. So I will continue to reach the bodies where needed. At the end of the day, I pray that everything will end soon. People are suffering, ”he says.
The Maharashtra Covid Scoreboard on Monday reported 70,284 deaths, including 3,148 in Nashik and 13,294 in Mumbai, according to official records.
Courtesy: Sabrang India