The widespread infection during the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the reality of, and further strained, an already bare public health system. The high number of deaths has also put a strain on the crematoriums and burial grounds in Bengaluru city. While there were several circulars on precautions to be taken during the cremations / burials to ensure the dignity of the deceased, there has been very little thought to the concerns of the workers.
According to some newspaper reports, there are 42 crematoriums and 58 burial grounds in Bengaluru. The city on an average saw 30,000 cremations/burials in a year before the outbreak of the pandemic. According to a newspaper report in July 2020, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) had plans to construct 10 crematoriums cum burial grounds totalling an area of 35.2 acres, which would have space to bury the dead and 2 electric crematoriums1. However, there is no update on the current status of these plans.
In the early days of the 2nd wave, the existing crematoriums / burial grounds were overwhelmed with the large number of deceased COVID-19 victims, far more than their capacity, were being brought there. This resulted in workers working for several hours more than prescribed under the law. Yet, clearly, the state government way back in November 2020, had anticipated that there would be an increasing number of deaths and had planned to increase the number of crematoriums / burial grounds. But the lack of any preparedness and general laxity by the government has brought us to the current situation. Had the government proceeded with the plans – both for space as well as workers, neither would families be left waiting for several hours to lay their dear ones to rest, nor would the workers have to work under such pressure and unhealthy conditions.
Crematorium and burial ground workers in India already live on the margins of society. They predominantly belong to the Dalit community and have been doing this work inter-generationally, as it is a caste-ordained occupation. Workers in several crematoriums and burial grounds are 3rd - 6th generation workers. A crematorium worker in Sumanahalli said that all workers in the crematorium are Dalit except one who is an OBC, who happened to be a friend of the workers in this crematorium and started working here since he was in need of employment. Cremating and burying the dead being a ‘traditional’ occupation (a term used to gentrify what is basically a stigmatised occupation), it already tends to attract informal employment, whether the facilities are owned and run by the government or private trusts. The government’s inaction has therefore impacted these workers manifold.
It is with this intention that AICCTU - Karnataka sought to understand the implications of COVID-19, the 2nd wave and lockdown on the lives and work of crematorium / burial ground workers and their families. A team of 3 members (including 1 volunteer) visited 26 crematoriums / burial grounds across Bengaluru city between May 4th – May 8th.
In Regard to Cremations / Burials
In the electric crematoriums, workers start their day around 6.00 – 7.00 am and continue working till late in the evening around 7.00 – 8.00 pm. While cremations in these crematoriums start around 9.00 am, the workers need to maintain and prepare the machines before the start of the day and in the evenings, the workers need to clean the crematorium and compound since flowers and other material used for last rites are left strewn around. The COVID-19 crematoriums reported that they were cremating 35-40 deceased persons a day.
In the 3 crematoriums where wood is used to cremate the deceased persons, the process takes much longer. Workers start work around 5.00 am and finish sometimes even at 1.00 - 2.00 in the night. Cremations start at 11.00 am and go on until 5.00 – 6.00 pm. Cremations using wood take much longer than when using electricity. The Tavarekere crematorium has 40 slots and the Giddenahalli crematorium has 50 slots. Yet, at the peak of the 2nd wave, these crematoriums were cremating sometimes almost twice their capacity. The pyres would burn through the night and the workers would start collecting the ashes at 6.00 am since family members would come from 8.00 am to collect them. The workers come from 30 – 35 kms from the crematoriums and travel by auto for this.
It must also be noted that the workers are dealing with an unprecedented workload. In Kalpalli Christian Cemetery, the workers stated that it takes about 4 hours to dig a grave and with the present situation wherein they are burying about 18 deceased persons a day, it must take approximately 72 hours a day to dig graves. There are additional workers helping out the existing workers with the digging. Therefore, not only were the grave-diggers seeking assistance from additional workers employed during this time, but were also working overtime. None of the workers are compensated for the overtime work being done. The same will be taking a toll on their health and make them susceptible to bodily injuries. The workers are also not being given enough time to rest themselves and are overworked, thus compromising their immunity.
Based on our visits to the 23 crematoriums / cemeteries in Bengaluru, we found that workers are not paid even minimum wages, nor given any statutory or constitutional benefits extended to a ‘worker’. Rather, in some instances, they are not even considered workers and instead are termed as ‘caretakers’ of burial grounds. They work under very precarious working conditions.
Crematoriums / burial grounds under the administration of the BBMP have a Writer who keeps records in the facility. Overall functioning is the responsibility of the Supervisor. The BBMP facilities have not more than 3 – 4 regular workers who have been issued identity cards. The other workers stated that they worked on a ‘contract’ basis, but were unable to inform us as to the form or nature of the contract.
The workers in crematoriums and burial grounds have been working under precarious conditions as has been described in the sections above. The onset of the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is further threatening their health and that of their families. With the exponential increase in the number of COVID-19 victims, the crematorium and burial ground workers are highly exposed to those succumbing to the disease. In their operational guidelines to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India dated 28.12.2020, crematorium workers were deemed to be ‘frontline’ workers eligible to be vaccinated. However, no benefits to be accrued to a frontline worker and the protection of health prescribed has been granted to these workers.
The workers in electric crematoriums who handle deceased persons by transporting them from the ambulance to the crematorium facility wear PPEs - where in some crematoriums are provided with PPE kits by the BBMP, and in some, the family of the deceased provides the PPE. Some of the workers wore masks in electric crematoriums. The worker AICCTU spoke to in Peenya Electric Crematorium only wore a disposable mask as he swept flowers, incense sticks etc. on the premises of the crematorium.
Workers in mass cremation centres wore PPEs sporadically, and only when they had to place the body of the deceased persons on the firewood. Those who were lighting the pyre did not wear any form of PPE since there was a danger of the material catching fire. However, in TR Mills crematorium none of the workers wore full-body PPE kits in either handling or cremating COVID-19 victims. As a result of not using protective gear which is fire resistant, workers have sustained burn injuries.
None of the grave-diggers wore PPEs while digging a grave nor when they would close the grave. Most of the workers stated that PPEs are uncomfortable to work in, especially while digging in the summer sun.
None of the workers were provided with sanitizer or soap solutions to maintain hygiene levels after handling of bodies of the deceased persons. Moreover, the workers living conditions are abysmal, thus ensuring not only higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, but also means that lack of basic infrastructure meant they were forced to not follow any of the safety protocol and measures prescribed.
While extreme precautionary measures have to be undertaken in handling and management of bodies of deceased COVID-19 victims, what is important is that the health of the personnel are also required to be monitored constantly. It must be noted here that there has been no action initiated by the BBMP to conduct a health assessment of the existing workers about the age group they belong to or the co-morbidities they suffer from. There have been no health camps undertaken by the BBMP or other authorities in-charge of the cemeteries to gauge the fitness and health of the workers before they are made to cremate or bury COVID-19 victims. Therefore, workers who are above 60 years of age have not been identified, and neither are workers suffering from co-morbidities such as respiratory illness, heart disease, diabetes or compromised immune systems.
These workers were considered as frontline workers by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in December 2020 and vaccinations for frontline workers started in January 2021. Despite the same, none of the workers have been provided with even a single dose of the vaccination when the AICCTU team met them.
Except for workers in Mysore Road and Panathur electric crematoriums who reported that regular testing for COVID-19 was taking place, none of the workers were tested. The workers also stated that no one had developed symptoms so far and hence did not require to get themselves tested. Most of the workers told AICCTU that they did not need to get tested as “there is God above us who will take care of us”.
The workers suffer from occupational hazards, where they suffer from back issues, burns, injuries, among other occupational hazards, the workers are not provided with health insurance either in the form of ESI, private or government health schemes. The workers themselves bear the costs of treatment, or in one case at the Panathur Electric Crematorium, the villagers bore the cost of treatment. The BBMP does not compensate the workers in case of workplace accidents or even death of the workers. At Harishchandra Ghat crematorium, when a worker passed away recently, there was no compensation paid to his family. Recently, when a worker contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalised in an ICU, a private foundation started a crowd-funding appeal to raise money for his medical treatment.
Additionally, while the directives prescribe that the workers must maintain hand hygiene after handling of the dead body, it must be noted that each crematorium is handling over 30 bodies of deceased persons and burial grounds are handling 15-25 bodies of deceased persons on a daily basis. Several family members request the workers to open body bags and show the face of the deceased member for the last time. While the same is permitted by the guidelines mentioned above, it also requires workers to maintain absolute measures thereafter. The same cannot be done due to the increase in workload for the workers. Therefore, not only are the workers not wearing protective equipment as prescribed, they do not have any opportunity or infrastructural facilities for washing after handling the dead bodies either. This holds good for especially those workers who are presently employed in mass cremation centres.
Should a crematorium / burial ground worker contract COVID-19, they struggle to access the health system. At least one burial ground worker has died since he was unable to secure a hospital bed. It is unfortunate that frontline workers who have been tirelessly working for the past year should not receive the necessary medical help on time.
Workers in the Christian burial ground in Kalpalli said that during the lockdown in 2020, they had received ration kits from the church and others, but this year they have received no support. The only support that the workers have received is the hot food from some NGOs. In the electric crematoriums, workers reported that they are given 3 meals a day and in some instances even refreshments. In other cemeteries like Kalpalli, they receive food once a day. Neither do families who live in the burial ground or those who live outside have received any food grains or cooked meals.
BBMP administered crematoriums / burial grounds
The workers in the electric crematoriums designated for COVID-19 cremations, all lived on the premises of the crematorium since their workload had increased manifold. The workers in Summanahalli, Kudlu, Yelahanka, Panathur, and Kengeri live inside the crematorium, with no proper facility for resting, toilet or bathrooms. In Kengeri electric crematorium, the workers stated that since it gets too late to finish their work, they stay in the crematorium. The workers had stayed on site for anywhere between one week to more than 15 days. This was either because they lived too far away or it was too late to go home by the time they finished their work for the day. One worker lived all the way near Ghati Subramanya, and therefore could not commute to his house every day. In this crematorium, they were provided with two small rooms sufficient for two people, but during this time, it is shared by four or five workers. The workers also sleep inside the crematorium on mattresses, which they have purchased themselves. They do not use blankets or pillows and the mattresses are worn out and use gunny-bags of rice as pillows. Here, when the workers started this job about 15 years ago, the BBMP promised them that they would take care of the housing rent for the workers, but hasn’t followed-up on the promise thus far. In Kudlu and Summanahalli, the workers who hail from Doddaballapura could not commute to their homes on a daily basis, and are hence living on the premises for the time-being. A worker at Kengeri crematorium centre also shared that they face stigma back home because they are cremating COVID-19 victims and one of the workers was asked to vacate their rented house as the house-owner found out that the worker cremated COVID-19 victims.
The workers employed in several crematoriums / burial grounds are 3rd to 6th generation workers, whose families lived on the premises of the crematorium / burial ground. Although they lived on the premises, these workers and their families do not have adequate basic infrastructure such as water, electricity and sanitation.
In the Kalpalli Hindu Crematorium as well, where the workers are living on the premises of the cremation ground. They live at the centre of the premises, surrounded by the electric crematorium, fire wood crematorium, graves, and now the newly dug COVID-19 graves. The women in the families of these workers were employed as domestic workers in the nearby areas. However, once the employers learn about where the woman lives, she immediately loses her job. There is a public toilet which is used by the families for their daily ablution.
One of the workers at Peenya was allotted government land near the crematorium on which he built a house and lives with his family. While there is a family living on the premises of the Wilson Garden Hindu Burial Ground, there are two other workers who help with grave-digging, who live in the neighbourhood in rented houses.