NEW DELHI—Delhi’s biggest crematorium grounds, the Nigam Bodh Ghat, has seen a rapid surge in activity in the past week. On April 24, the dead were waiting in ambulances outside, while others were carried by family members, waiting to be laid on the pyre, where many were burning as rituals were performed.
A pall of dignified silence lay over the entire scene.
On the main gate, toward the left, there was a notice from North Delhi’s municipal corporation listing seven hospitals whose COVID-19 casualties are allowed to be brought for cremation at the ghat. (In India, a ghat is a series of steps leading down to a river.) The notice further said, “Cremation inside Nigam Bodh Ghat is allowed between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day.” On the right was a cautionary note to maintain one’s distance.
Situated along the river Yamuna, the Nigam Bodh Ghat had at least four layers of cremations occurring on April 24.
There were bodies burning right on the banks of the river, another row of them burning on constructed spaces above, some burning a few steps up toward the right under a shed, and many burning on the ground along the path that, through multiple gates, leads to the main road outside.
“On Monday, 40 bodies came here. On Tuesday, it was 65, and today, it has been 120 [as of 3:30 pm],” said Varun Chauhan, a shopkeeper outside the gates selling material needed for the cremation.
On April 24, Delhi recorded 357 COVID-19 deaths, the highest on any day since the pandemic began more than a year ago. It was just four on an average day in March.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual meeting on April 23 with the chief ministers of the various states most affected by COVID-19 to ensure coordination in dealing with the crisis. On the same day, the country set a world record for the highest spike of new cases in a single day since the pandemic began, with 332,730 cases recorded. The overall current death toll stands at 192,311.
“Delhi’s situation is really bad. The administration has failed. There’s panic among the people. Rumors aren’t controlled about vaccines and oxygen cylinders,” Sunil Kumar Aledia, a social worker, told The Epoch Times. Since the lockdown was imposed on April 16, Aledia has helped provide food and oxygen cylinders. He also helps identify and contact the families of unclaimed victims and helps those needing assistance with cremation.
The Epoch Times followed Aledia throughout his COVID-relief work from morning till dusk on April 24 to understand the situation.
“Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, mentioned earlier to the public that the state’s oxygen stock was sufficient only for two days. He shouldn’t have talked this way. It spread a lot of panic. He still had two days to coordinate,” Aledia says, chiding the current head of Delhi’s local government for blaming the federal government. “The CM [chief minister] has his own responsibilities.”
Aledia, who is also the executive director of the Centre for Holistic Development, has four oxygen cylinders and two oxygen concentrators that he rotates among those who reach out to his organization. On April 21, he got about 150 distress calls for oxygen cylinders.
“There’s a lot of panic about oxygen cylinders. From all the calls that we receive, everyone isn’t in need. Sometimes people call us for a friend’s friend’s friend. There’s actually a lot of panic,” he says.
The government should work to reassure people and calm them, Aledia says.
“People are looking for beds and oxygen cylinders. These are materials. The reality, including people’s response to the situation, is linked to their mental state of being,” he says.
On April 22, the Indian Air Force airlifted cryogenic oxygen containers from its station to a recharging facility in the country’s east, and Modi urged the state heads to come together and work toward assuring a seamless supply of oxygen and medicines. Modi said the federal government is working to increase oxygen production.
The scarcity of oxygen cylinders has been a major crisis in the country. Last week, there were reports of cylinders being sold on the black market, as well as stories of philanthropists and other donors providing free supplies at personal expense.
There’s a lot that the Good Samaritans are doing. On the same road as the Nigam Bodh Ghat, Aledia wades on his bike through a crowd of thousands of homeless daily workers who lost their jobs during this month’s lockdown.
“Food comes here at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9 p.m., and there are two Good Samaritans who serve food at 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.,” Aledia says. He coordinates more than eight charities and multiple individuals for the supplies at the site, which hosts five working shelters for the homeless, each of which can house a maximum of 30 people. But there are 5,000 who sleep under the open sky at the location, many on the footpaths on both sides.
The food comes cooked and packaged, as none of the shelters have kitchens. During last year’s lockdown, Aledia’s group served food to more than 20,000 every day around Delhi.
On his way to the Nigam Bodh Ghat, Aledia stops at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital, a centrally located government-run hospital, to help with the cremation of Chitra Nigam, a 66-year-old retired female teacher who died there due to COVID-19.
“Her whole family is COVID-positive and can’t do her cremation. So they asked us for assistance,” Aledia says as he calls the family on phone for government-approved identification. “We daily get one to two calls seeking such assistance for COVID cremations.
“Yesterday, we assisted with the cremation of an 80-year-old father of a gazetted [high-ranking] officer employed with the government. They sought our assistance because there was a lack of space in the crematoriums.”
Outside the hospital, Aledia meets with his mentor, Indu Prakash Singh, 61, a noted social worker, poet, and writer, who encountered various challenges in finding an oxygen-equipped ambulance and a bed for his wife on April 24.
“The ambulance people weren’t prepared. So I had to pay 15,500 rupees ($207) one way to transport my sick wife to a private hospital,” Singh told The Epoch Times by phone on April 25, complaining that the regular charges are 5,000 to 6,000 rupees ($67 to $80).
“My wife was in another hospital. Yesterday morning, the hospital made an announcement that it has no oxygen supplies and asked all, over 200 COVID patients, to leave the hospital. Our relatives started looking for a bed for my wife, and finally one of her cousins found one in a private hospital. She’s doing better now.”
He asserted that there is a politically motivated lack of support from the federal to the state government in the situation in New Delhi.
After meeting with Singh, Aledia, who disagrees with his mentor’s political perception of the situation, drives two miles to the mortuary of the Maulana Azad Medical College, where Nigam’s body has been placed.
Outside the mortuary, under beautiful flowering trees, a few people wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) walk, while five ambulances are parked outside. Used and discarded PPE clothing lies in a few piles on both sides of the road. Aledia shakes his head in disbelief.
“They are asking me for an authorization letter from Nigam’s family, along with her identification card and her son’s identification card. They will then let me cremate the body,” he says, describing the conversation that he had with mortuary officials. He was later able to get Nigam cremated on April 25.
From Nigam Bodh Ghat, Aledia drives seven miles to Sarai Kale Khan, a suburban region with multiple construction projects. He’s on his way to another area that uses cremation with firewood as well as an electrical alternative.
All along the way from the main road to the crematorium, he bikes through crowds of workers sitting outside private buses waiting to travel to their homes in adjoining states amid the lockdown. Some are crowded around food carts selling water and local food products. Most are wearing masks, but almost no one practices social distancing.
Inside the big gate of the Sarai Kale Khan cremation grounds, construction workers are hurriedly building 16 new cremation platforms on the green lawn, while smoke from freshly lit pyres rises through the walls of an inner area.
Outside, the bodies of several COVID-19 victims wait for their turn in the parked ambulances, while a few people stroll around in blue and white PPE suits. “Bio-hazardous waste” lies littered on both sides of the entrance while wood for pyres is stocked under a shed.
Aledia drives straight to the electric crematorium at the rear of the premises. Four corpses wait on the ground near the staircase of the crematorium, under a big tree. He approaches the crematorium caretakers.
“These are not COVID bodies. They are unidentified bodies left here by the police,” says a caretaker who refused to be identified. There are two chambers inside, one of which wasn’t working on April 24.
Aledia says he’ll approach officials to make sure it’s up and working again in the next few days.