NEW DELHI — “We had to wait for four hours to cremate my father-in-law,” Nidhi Deveshwar told Zenger News. “There was no space, and we were asked to come the next day. Bhiwadi is not even that big of a city, yet crematoriums are full.”
Bhiwadi in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan is spread across 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) and is home to 200,000 people. But the city is running out of space to burn or bury the dead over the past 10 days.
“We had to convince the authorities that the death wasn’t due to Covid-19 complications.” After much persistence, the family was given a spot in a corner where cremations aren’t done usually.
India has been reporting over 300,000 daily Covid-19 cases for almost a week. Over 200,000 people have died so far in the pandemic that began more than a year ago.
The explosion in Covid-19 cases has overwhelmed most healthcare facilities, and gasping patients are dying in homes and on streets. Serpentine queues of bodies could be seen at crematoriums and burial grounds as relatives wait for hours to say the final goodbyes to their loved ones.
As bodies kept on piling up, funeral pyres were lit along roads in Ghaziabad, a city in India’s National Capital Region. Civic authorities constructed makeshift platforms outside a cremation ground and the river’s floodplains to dispose of the barrage of bodies.
In Delhi, parks, and parking lots outside crematoriums were used to cut wait times. Families are forced to either hurry or skip age-old rituals central to Hindu mythology.
The situation is similar countrywide.
“My grandfather Ranchor Chauhan had Covid-19 and didn’t have any breathing difficulties until the very end,” Abhigya Chauhan, a 24-year-old information technology professional based in India’s northern city of Chandigarh, told Zenger News.
Ranchor was from Kotkhai, a hamlet in the northern mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh.
“After his death, only my father and uncle took the body. No one else was allowed to see him — not even his wife. I am not sure if the demise is registered as a Covid-19 death because of the lack of testing and recording in the village,” she said.
The Narendra Modi-led right-wing Hindu nationalist government has been criticized for its failure to tackle the deadly second wave of Covid-19. In July last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had predicted close to 300,000 Covid-19 cases per day in India by February 2021.
Various state governments have been accused of underreporting cases.
Actual deaths far exceed the official numbers, Salabh Manocha from Prayagraj, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, told Zenger News.
“There are eight ghats [crematoriums built beside riverbanks] in Prayagraj where Covid-19 victims are being cremated,” he said. “The day my father died, newspapers showed ’13 dead’. But we saw the cremation of 43 bodies at the Phaphamau ghat, which is one of the eight ghats.”
Staff at crematoriums, ghats, and graveyards are working round the clock. Many cities and towns have started reporting shortages of wood, triggering fears that vast swathes of tree cover may have to be cleared.
“The wood used for the cremation was heavily overpriced, and the staff didn’t help with the process. It was a dreadful situation,” Manocha said.
Doctors, drugs, oxygen, critical care beds remain in short supply. India’s social media timelines are inundated with SOS from people whose family members and friends need life-saving medical interventions.
Kashmir politician Omar Abdullah, actor Sonu Sood, and former Indian cricketer Wasim Jaffer are some of those amplifying these messages to help the desperate.
Several civilians are also coming forward to help those struggling to cremate their dead. For instance, in the national capital, Pritam and Devender, who work with relief organization United Sikh, have helped cremate over 300 bodies.
The government is relying mostly on its plan to expand vaccination and receive supplies of drugs and equipment from other countries to tide over the crisis. But, till that happens, deaths may continue to disrupt the country.
(Additional reporting by Ojaswin Kathuria, Praveen Tewari, and Pallavi Mehra)
(Edited by Amrita Das and Yazid Peedikakkal)
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