As COVID-19 deaths surged in India during the second wave, the only crematorium in the Bokaro district with the traditional funeral pyre — the Shri Shamshan Kali Mandir Trust Crematorium popularly known as Chas Shamshan Ghat witnessed a steep rise in the number of bodies to be cremated each day. The crematorium is situated under the Garga river bridge at Chas in the district.
In April and May this year, the facility recorded 1,202 deaths, out of which 302 mortalities were COVID-related, whereas last year it was 243 in the corresponding months. In the year 2019, during the pre-COVID times, the number of deaths were 214 in the months of April and May.
With a workforce of 12 members, only 2 workers, Saresh (55) and Ashish Dom (55) are originally responsible for lifting the bodies to schedule the funeral services. "We did not sleep for nights, in the last week of April and the following two weeks of May, because of the immense pressure. It's unforgettable," said Saresh, who has been working at the crematorium for more than 20 years now.
But during that period, some of the workers at the Chas crematorium who had never lit a pyre before were forced to do so owing to the shortage in the number of workers and pressure from the families of the deceased. Ram (55) is one such sanitation worker at the crematorium who was forced to light the pyre "Setting fire to a pyre is not my job but I had to do it because if I didn't who would have? This place pays me. I saw humankind falling apart before my eyes," he said.
Recalling one such incident, he added, "I have never seen the rich as helpless as when I saw an old man lighting the pyre of his wife and had his son who couldn't come to India, crying over a video call. I couldn't stop crying wondering no matter how much money one may possess, it's all worthless in such a situation."
Sunil (33), who has been selling firewood at the crematorium for 20 years spoke about the ever-increasing rush at the facility. "I can't recall a time when bodies were arriving round the clock and we ran short of firewood."
The importance of a consistent team to handle COVID bodies prompted the district administration to seek more help when on April 17, the crematorium recorded a total of 18 fatalities, including five COVID-related deaths. The existing contractual workers at the municipality refused to pick up the bodies.
"Our workers, who have been working since more than 15 years explicitly did not want to pick up the bodies of those who died of the coronavirus", said Vikash Ranjan (31), the City Manager at the municipality. "Everyone was so scared, even family members abandoning their dead ones was alarming," said Lalit Neelam Lakra (45), who is one of the four city managers.
"The need of a team was imperative to keep up with the work, so these municipality workers unofficially advertised in their respective residential colonies about the municipality looking forward to paying an incentive of ₹15,000 per month and a job post-corona period to those who take the responsibility of handling COVID bodies," Ranjan added.
On April 26, 2021, arrived a group of five unemployed men, who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, at the city's government hospital— Sadar Hospital. Out of these five, one discontinued the work there right after watching the hospital's security guards demonstrated how to covering and disposing of bodies of those afflicted by COVID. On the morning of April 27, a group of eight workers was formed and named as the Covid Dead Body Management Team (the CDBM team, hereinafter).
In initial days, the team functioned had no fixed working hours but was later divided into two shifts— A and B. While shift A lasted from 6 am to 2 pm, shift B lasted from 2 pm to 10 pm. The workers received calls as early as 3am. Ariving at the hospital as soon as possible, they proceeded with wrapping dozens of bodies in black polybags at the Sadar hospital, followed by stuffing them inside the ambulance and transporting them to the crematorium. They were also requested to assemble the pyre and cremate the dead bodies by the family members of the deceased. Many times, they cremated bodies with no family member claiming them.
They were outsourced by a private company called Raider Security Services Private Limited, which provides security guards to various organisations all over Jharkhand. The team workers got to know about themselves and their labour being outsourced only on May 1 when they met the company's supervisor Khan for the first time.
The team was formed on April 27, and a plea to the Raider company for providing five workers for the management of bodies was sent on April 28, from the civil surgeon's office. When the company's supervisor Khan interacted with the city managers along with the team on May 1, he realised there were three extra men. "I may suffer loss to three people, but it doesn't matter, we are together in this fight, so I will bear the loss, people must not die because of the lack of logistics'', Khan said.
After working for a month, these workers received their first payment of only ₹ 6700, and not ₹15,000 as they were told earlier. After raising this concern with another Meghnath Chaudhary, another city manager, they got to know that they were marked absent for several days in the attendance sheet maintained by the team supervisor, and the policy only allows this private company to pay these workers for the days they were present for the duty.
The meagre payment to the workers was initiated from the company's funds. According to the cashier at the civil surgeon's officer Ramesh Mishra, the Jharkhand government had not provided the office with the required funds to pay the workers, which resulted in the office's inability in distributing the funds to the company who would have then paid the workers.
These workers were not provided with any identity card, nor any formal paperwork was done as a proof of their employment at the crematorium facility under the authority of Chas Municipality. "The pressure was so much that any such official paperwork was not our first priority that time," said Dr Uttam Kumar, the COVID Ward Nodal Officer from the Civil Surgeon Office.
Since the admission of the workers at the crematorium was not documented with the administrators, this would mean that they have not even received any insurance money under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKP). On March 20, 2020, this insurance scheme was launched to provide extensive personal accident insurance to healthcare professionals, along with the community and private healthcare workers, who had direct interaction with the COVID patients and may be at risk. This scheme covers the workers who lose their life due to the coronavirus, and the accidental deaths due to COVID- related duty.
Balbir Singh (35) worked as an ice cream vendor in Chas area before the pandemic struck in 2020. In the second week of May 2021, Balbir's right shoulder got fractured as he hit the hospital's gate while entering inside during his shift. In the absence of any documentation of Balbir's work at the Chas' Crematorium, he could not claim any insurance money. Raider company's supervisor Khan personally bore the cost of his treatment.
Life Of The Workers Before Covid
In August 2020, ActionAid India published a report suggesting that 80 percent of workers from the informal sector lost their jobs due to the lockdowns that happened as COVID struck the country. "The only reason I agreed for this job was the money and job assurance they were offering to me, or else I can never imagine myself doing such a job," said Rakesh Kumar who is a BCA graduate, and was working with a coaching center in sector 4 as an in charge. However, after the pandemic struck these coaching centres shut. Not one among those people to sit back and complain, he actively volunteered for SHG programmes with Safai Karmachari Andolan Jharkhand in the district. "After the NGO also shut down, I was desperately looking for a source of income as all my savings got over," he said.
Bablu (35), who was a street vendor, selling garments in Chas was under huge debt which forced him to take up this job. "If COVID had not taken away my job, I would have never opted to do such a work," said Mohan, who worked with a private hospital and on a contract basis at the SAIL plant in Bokaro before.
Lakshya (35) formerly worked as a housekeeper in the SAIL's trainee's hostel. After the pandemic, however, the hostel shut thereby rendering him jobless. He then worked at a private hospital before joining the CDBM Team.
Before COVID, Krishna Singh (32) before the pandemic, was a daily wage labourer. With no jobs, he was forced to work in hospitals and later took up this job to survive.
None of the eight workers informed their families about their assigned jobs at the hospital. Bablu recalls how some of his neighbours spotted him at the Chas Crematorium and began to spread rumours in their locality about him working as an undertaker. The members of his locality would sanitise every inch of the ground he walked on.
Apart from this, the workers claim they received threats and that the supervisor and the guards of the hospital misbehaved with them.
By the end of May, when the fatality rate began to decline they received threats from the supervisor. "We were asked to clean the terraces and when we protested, he (the supervisor) would threaten to remove us from the job", said Rakesh Kumar.
Commenting on it, the supervisor Mohan said, "He is just like us but is taking advantage of his position" Recalling how guards of the hospital misbehaved with them, Bablu said, "The guards would insult us by calling us 'dead body team members' and said that we would infect the crowd. They asked us not to enter the Sadar Hospital Campus via the main entrance, so we used the other gate."
The same guards also had the job to serve meals at the hospital to the staff and would always misbehave with the CDBM team workers, saying, "Don't get touched, keep physical distance while collecting the meal," recalled Rakesh Kumar. "We were treated like the untouchables," he aded.
They were also asked to not share any internal dynamics of the hospital with any outsider. The hospital authorities didn't want them to interact with a reporter due to which these workers requested to meet me outside the campus.
Safety Kits And Vaccinations
Though they were provided with adequate PPE kits to protect themselves at work but it did not assure non exposure to the virus. The workers claim they were never tested for COVID while the administrators claimed that "they were tested regularly" but couldn't provide any proof of the same.
These workers lived in their homes with their family members post their shifts.
"Mohan asked for a changing-room-cum-restroom directly to the city manager, but we didn't get any," Rakesh said. They cleaned the dumping room of the Sadar hospital by themselves and used to rest there. They bought soaps outside the Sadar hospital to clean themselves post-cremation at the Chas crematorium.
Only three out of these eight workers were vaccinated upon joining the CDBM Team and it was only on July 27, that four others were vaccinated. One was unwell due to which he couldn't get vaccinated. The administrators asserted that they were vaccinated immediately upon joining the team, but could not provide any proof. However, they received their provisional certificate a day later with an incorrect place and date (July 28) of getting the vaccine shot.
The workers are fearful of losing yet another job. They feel underpaid and unvalidated for the job they did when everyone else refused. While four of them belong to the Scheduled caste community, the other three have no caste certificate which deprives them to claim many government benefits and various types of aid.
According to India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare's (MoHFW) COVID–19 vaccine guidelines, the frontline workers are the people who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19, therefore getting them vaccinated should be the first priority.
Responding to the queries from the Bokaro administration about the conditions of these eight workers at the Chas municipal corporation office, the then-District Commissioner said, "It's not possible that they were not vaccinated. If they were not, it might be due to their own personal reasons. They were scared or gave the excuse being unwell. Also, two vaccination centres (in the municipality office and in Sadar Hospital) were always open without any digital registration, it was accessible for them."
Dr. Ashok Pathak, a civil surgeon, said, "The ANM training center of the hospital was given for them to reside after their shifts, but these workers themselves choose not to stay". Other administration staff also did not agree with the claims of negligence made by these workers made about the payment, vaccination and place to reside.
*Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identities.