Bengaluru: Crematoriums run overtime while kin wait

Staffers at a crematorium for Covid patients say they start work at 7am, and continue till 2am because they don't want to turn back anyone. They cremate at least 25 bodies daily.
Ambulances wait outide a designated crematorium for Covid-19 patients in Bengaluru(HT Photo)
Ambulances wait outide a designated crematorium for Covid-19 patients in Bengaluru(HT Photo)
Updated on Apr 22, 2021 10:40 AM IST
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ByArun Dev , Hindustan Times, Bengaluru

Bengaluru: Despite a relative’s relentless attempts, 24-year-old Sunitha refused to move away from the ambulance, where she has been for more than an hour looking at her mother Valliyamma’s body. While she refused to move using hand gestures, she took a moment to ask a question to her relative: “What number it now?” “Ten,” replied the relative, adding it could take another five hours before their turn and that she should take rest.

On Wednesday, Sunitha was among the many relatives waiting outside the government crematorium in Summanahalli in Bengaluru, one of the seven locations allocated to cremate Covid-19 causalities. “We have been waiting here since morning and they are telling us they will be able to cremate her only after five hours. Her body kept in an ambulance for all this while, there is not even ice box,” said Sunitha.

More than 19 ambulances were waiting outside this crematorium on Wednesday with dead bodies in them. As no one is allowed near the furnaces, family members were seen performing last rites around the ambulances.

Inside the crematorium, the staff had their own troubles. Earlier on Wednesday, the door of one of two furnaces malfunctioned, which took a couple of hours to fix. “Our maximum capacity is to cremate 16 bodies a day that, too, if we push ourselves and machine. For the past few days, we have been cremating more at least 25 bodies a day. Today (Wednesday), we have already got 23 bodies (at 2.30 pm), we are told more bodies are coming,” said Vinod R, a supervisor of the crematorium.

The crematorium has four staffers to operate the furnaces. “Their shift starts at 7 am and because of the number of bodies, they have to work till 2 am. We are not turning any bodies back, because we know what the families are going through, but we are finding it physically difficult to keep up with the workload,” he added.

In the first wave of Covid-19, the highest number of deaths reported was 75 on July 17, 2020, but in the second wave, the number of deaths reported has been much higher. On Monday, 97 deaths were reported in Bengaluru. The pressure of this increase is being felt at crematoriums across the city. The numbers didn’t show any considerable reduction, with the city reporting 92 and 70 deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Around 7km away from Summanhalli, at Peenya crematorium, the situation was no different. The centre received 23 dead bodies by Wednesday afternoon and the six furnace operators were preparing for another long night.

Renuskesh, the supervisor of the centre, has bloodshot eyes from sleeping for just three hours the previous night. “We were told to close the gates once we get around 15 bodies, which is our capacity, but when people plead in front of us, we can’t be inhumane. The workers have been sleeping in the crematorium itself. They haven’t met their families for days,” he said.

The furnace operators are contract labourers, who until recently were not even paid their salaries. “We get only 13,000 and after cuts, it comes down to 10,000. But for close to a year, we were not paid our salaries. It was only recently because the authorities needed us that our salaries were paid. Despite this, we didn’t strike or stop working, that is because we see the pain of these families,” said Ramanajaiah, one of the contract workers at Peenya.

While the employees are ready to work the long hours, there are many aspects that are beyond them. “Firstly, the local residents have been objecting to the furnaces running late into the night. But the biggest problem is the furnace itself. We can’t keep it running like this. It needs to cool down for at least 7-8 hours. Otherwise, it will break down soon. Also, as the number of bodies is increasing and cleaning the remains from under the furnace needs time too. We are not getting any time for this,” added Renuskesh.

He added that just seven cremation centres for Covid-19 casualties in the entire city was not enough. As the number of deaths is increasing, pushing the furnaces beyond their capacity will lead to a collapse and more chaos, Renuskesh said.

At the Banashankari crematorium, two men in threw their personal protective equipment (PPE) kits on the road after a heated argument with the crematorium staff. The staff did not allow the ambulance, which arrived at the centre, to enter as furnaces had reached the capacity. “We already have 24 bodies, and we won’t be able to finish it by even 3 am. But people are not understanding, they are making influential people call us, but when there is no space, what do we do?” asked a crematorium staff on the condition of anonymity.

Acknowledging the shortage of cremation slots, Karnataka deputy chief minister Dr CN Ashwatha Narayana on Wednesday said that instead of just seven crematoria, all available cremation centres will be used for Covid-19 cases.

“From today onwards, the final rites of those who succumb to Covid-19 will be performed in all the 13 crematoriums of the city. I have discussed the problem related to the cremation with Gaurav Gupta, Chief Commissioner of BBMP and steps have been taken to make arrangements for the dignified burial of those who lose lives due to the pandemic,” Narayana told HT on Wednesday.


    Arun Dev is an Assistant Editor with the Karnataka bureau of Hindustan Times. A journalist for over 10 years, he has written extensively on crime and politics.

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