4 furnaces down, this Delhi crematorium sends bodies back to hospital
Inside the Covid-19 mortuary of the Lok Nayak Hospital, there are 108 bodies. All 80 storage racks are full and there are 28 bodies on the floor, piled on top of each other, officials at the mortuary said.
On Tuesday, eight bodies were returned from the Nigambodh Ghat CNG crematorium because the facility was in no position to accept more bodies for disposal. Only two of its six furnaces were working.
Lok Nayak Hospital is the largest dedicated Covid-19 hospital in the city, and its mortuary is the repository of bodies of those who died of the coronavirus disease or are suspected to have died of it. The bodies are wrapped in personal protection (PPE) kits and handled by employees wearing PPE suits. As many as 602 of the total 2,242 Covid-19 patients who are in hospital care across 16 hospitals in Delhi are admitted in the facility, which is not admitting any non-Covid cases at this time.
As the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths toll mount in the capital, the hospital’s employees are overwhelmed. Delhi reported 792 coronavirus infections on Wednesday, taking the city’s tally to 15,257 since the first Covid-19 case was reported on March 2; 15 more deaths took the toll to 303.
A hospital official described the scene in the mortuary.
“We are yet to cremate the bodies of those who died five days ago,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “The backlog of such cases is increasing every day. Wearing PPE suits, we stand in the sun in this heat outside the crematorium only to be told in the evening that they cannot accept the bodies. Today there are 28 bodies on the floor lying next to each other or piled on top of each other. Last week, there were 34 .”
At the Nigambodh Ghat electric crematorium, three of the six CNG furnaces were working until Monday; one of them developed a snag the same night.
“We could not take the load and hence returned the bodies. On Tuesday, even after working extra hours, we only accepted 15 bodies,” an official at the crematorium said, pointing to a board that contained details of the 15 bodies from across different city hospitals that were accepted
On Tuesday afternoon, when an HT team visited Nigambodh Ghat, workers were rebuilding the three damaged furnaces. Another group of workers was at work on the fourth. The workers said it would take at least two months to rebuild the three damaged chambers. The crematorium has received the bodies of at least 244 Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19 patients till date.
“We have fixed the third furnace and it is working now,” said Suman Gupta of the Nigambodh Ghat Sanchalan Samiti, the trust that manages the crematorium. “Nobody was prepared for the surge of bodies related to Covid-19. Until the coronavirus pandemic, we got only 4-5 cases a day. We had to request people to come and use the CNG crematorium. The three defunct machines malfunctioned three to four months ago and it wasn’t a problem then. Ours is not a commercial business. Last week, we finally managed to convince the government to give us the money to fix the three furnaces. Work is on.”
North Delhi Municipal Corporation has received ₹ 1.3 crore from Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) to repair the damaged CNG-based cremation furnaces at Nigambodh Ghat.
One official at the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium said that even an extension of the daily shift hasn’t helped. “Before the pandemic, the crematorium operated between 9 am and 4 pm. Now it opens at 7 am and shuts operation at 10 pm. Even this is not helping. The workers need at least two hours to dispose a body. Collecting the ashes takes time. We are also helpless,” the official said.
Bodies of Covid-19 patients and suspected Covid-19 patients are being taken to the electric crematoriums at Nigambodh Ghat and Punjabi Bagh. At Punjabi Bagh, there are two furnaces. Besides these, four burial grounds for Muslim and Christians have been approved in the Income Tax Office area, Mangolpuri, Madanpur Khadar and Shastri Park.
The backlog in disposal of bodies has been caused by non-functioning furnaces at the crematorium, said Dr Suresh Kumar, director of Lok Nayak Hospital . “We had problems until about five days ago. Now it is being sorted. We have space to keep the bodies. The bodies are also being sent to other crematoriums,” he said.
Cremation using wood
North Delhi Municipal Corporation’s deputy commissioner and spokesperson Ira Singhal said the civic agency has now received orders to cremate bodies using wood as well. Still, the order signed by the municipal health officer said CNG and electric crematoriums were preferable.
“The order has been issued so that the number of pending bodies for cremation could be cleared. We are making all efforts to tackle the problem. The three CNG furnaces were working but for the last two days, one developed a problem. The furnace is being repaired. We may be able to use it from tomorrow (Thursday),” she said.
Singhal said: “The cremation using wood is also safe. The CNG method was adopted because there was less physical contact with the body. It is safe and adopted by other countries abroad too.”
With a large number of bodies being sent to Nigambodh Ghat for last rites, the Delhi government has also posted six officials from the health department to ensure that people follow norms such as physical distancing and other guidelines while the cremation is performed.
Utmost precautions are being taken in disposing the bodies, one worker at Nigambodh Ghat said. “The bodies come wrapped in PPE suits. No one is allowed to open the suit. A worker at the furnace and one from the hospital put it in the furnace without removing the suit. We follow this process for all positive as well as suspected cases,” said Vishal, a worker at the Nigambodh Ghat Sanchalan Samiti.