Shimla’s crematorium overwhelmed by Covid-19 deaths

Stretched to the limit, caretakers say they haven’t been paid in weeks even as the risk of contracting coronavirus has increased
The crematorium at Kanlog near Shimla that is struggling to cope with double the number of bodies being brought for the last rites as Covid-19 fatalities has seen a rise in the state capital.(Deepak Sansta/HT)
The crematorium at Kanlog near Shimla that is struggling to cope with double the number of bodies being brought for the last rites as Covid-19 fatalities has seen a rise in the state capital.(Deepak Sansta/HT)
Published on Nov 30, 2020 04:50 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Shimla | By

With Covid-19 deaths on the rise, the funeral pyres burn the entire day at the crematorium at Kanlog on the busy Dhalli-Tutikhandhi bypass near Shimla.

Caretakers at the cremation facility are struggling to cope. “I’ve been here for two decades but never have I come across such a situation,” says Jeevan Singh, 34, the caretaker at the crematorium, built 22 years ago by Rotary Club, Shimla, and run by the local Sood Sabha.

On an average, three bodies used to be brought daily for the last rites but of late the numbers have doubled. The crematorium has only four platforms to cremate bodies, including the Covid-19 fatalities. As a result, non-Covid dead are cremated before 10am and those who succumbed to the virus are brought after that.

Also read: Farmers’ protest: Amid fears of Covid-19 spread, medical camp set up at Singhu border

“It’s difficult to handle the rush because it takes four to five hours to cremate a body. Two weeks ago, we had to do the last rites of nine people who died of Covid-19 in single day. Just imagine our plight,” says Jeevan Singh, who lives with his wife and three-year-old son in room adjoining the crematorium.

“Now I fear for my life and the health of my family,” he says, donning the personal protection equipment (PPE) kit.

NOT PAID FOR THREE WEEKS

The Shimla municipal corporation pays 1,000 per body cremated to the caretaker. However, the two caretakers at the crematorium say they have not been paid for three weeks.

“I believe God sent us for the service of mankind but at the same time the authorities should realise the risk to our lives,”says Bhima Ram, the other caretaker who belongs to Banjar in Kullu district.

Till date, 164 patients have died due to Covid-19 in Shimla’s two main hospitals, Indira Gandhi Medical College and Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital. Of the total coronavirus deaths, 116 were from Shimla district and the rest were referred to the IGMC and DDU from other districts.

“Nearly 90 patients were brought dead or died within 48 hours of admission which don’t come within the purview of the hospital deaths, indicating their delayed coming to hospital and improper referral”, says IGMC senior medical superintendent Janak Raj.

A majority of the Covid-19 fatalities were cremated in Shimla.

MC’S HELP SOUGHT TO BUILD PLATFORMS

The Sood Sabha has written to the Shimla Municipal Corporation, seeking help to build more platforms for the last rites. “I have urged the MC to help build more platforms in the open space on either side of the crematorium in view of the rising Covid fatalities. Otherwise, it will be difficult to handle the situation in the coming days,” says Sanjay Sood, the president of the Shimla Sood Sabha.

According to sources, people are hesitant to bring the bodies of their relatives in case of non-Covid deaths, citing improper sanitisation. It is learnt that the sanitation van can’t reach the crematorium’s platforms.

GAS CREMATORIUM DEFUNCT

In 2007, the Sood Sabha set up a gas-operated crematorium at Kanlog.

It cost about 60 lakh and was imported from the United States but is lying defunct since 2014 due to a technical snag. A few local residents were trained to operate it but people prefer wood for the last rites hence it lay in disuse for a long time and developed a snag.

In view of the rising number of Covid fatalities, the Sood Sabha has now sought the government’s help to fix the gas-operated crematorium.

“Last time when it developed a snag, we brought a mechanic all the way from Florida. We had to pay him 5 lakh but the machine broke down again. We’ve asked the government if arrangements can be made to repair it locally. We will bear the cost,” Sood said.

Almighty Blessings, a non-profitable organisation in Shimla, has volunteered to run the gas-operated crematorium. “We can run the crematorium if the machine is rectified,” says Sarabjeet Singh Bobby of the NGO that does free funerals and runs free canteens at IGMC and Kamla Nehru Hospital.

Bobby says some people were so poor that they couldn’t even afford wood for the cremation. It costs between 3,600 to 5,000 to cremate a body.

COVID DEATHS PEAKED IN SHIMLA IN NOVEMBER

May: 2

June: 2

July: 1

August: 5

September: 34

October: 40

November: 80

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Gaurav Bisht heads Hindustan Times’ Himachal bureau. He covers politics in the hill state and other issues concerning the masses.

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