Cremation Ghat, Ganga Barraje, Bijnore. Image via Aas Mohammad

No Masks, No Gloves: How Dalit Cremation Workers are Navigating COVID-19

*Editors Note: This piece was originally written in Hindi and translated to English. Names of sources are changed to protect identities

Eight to 10 bodies are cremated at the cremation ground per day at Ganga Barrage, located in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh. Cremation work is a caste economy and so, cremation workers here are all Dalit. Amit* Valmiki stands at a fixed distance from us while we talk to him, while covering his face with a simple cloth.

Cremation workers are usually paid a meagre Rs. 100-200 per body. But things are worse during COVID-19 .

“We are perennially distressed people, COVID can’t distress us any further," said Valmiki. "To be honest, in the face of all our problems, COVID is a minuscule problem. There have been absolutely no measures to protect these workers even as they work with COVID-infected bodies.”

And we can see it. There is no protective equipment that Amit and his colleagues are wearing — no masks, shoes, sanitisers, gloves, or hair covers. They work with their bare hands with small scarf wrapped hastily around their face and neck.

Although the arrival of COVID-infected bodies is now slowing down, there have been times in the recent past when cremation workers were working overtime.

Valmiki said that the relatives of the deceased often came in a separate vehicle. On many occasions, they didn’t accompany the body at all.

“Only hospital staff came with the dead body, and left the bodies here," he said. "We carry out all the final rites for those deceased, no matter who they were ultimately. They used to bring the bodies wrapped in plastic bags, leave it on the ground and rush back. What were we to do? We cremated them.”

What all this amounts to is that cremation workers are working more now for less remuneration. What relatives of the deceased paid before was already meager but with the COVID considerations, in an effort to maintain distance from the body, too many folks were abandoning their loved ones and speeding away. This leaves cremation workers without pay and no choice but to fulfill the cremation process. They are not paid by the municipality for their efforts either.

According to Valmiki, some people used to pay them for the work in very humiliating ways.

“During normal times, people practiced untouchability on us; they used to place the money on the ground and we had to take that money only after they had left," Valmiki said. "This was during normal times, so imagine COVID times — people don't even want to touch their loved ones. We thought - maybe now they would understand our pain of experiencing untouchability.”

COVID has caused the worst conditions among the cremation workers in Delhi. Here, there have been over 10,00 deaths.

There was even a waiting list for cremations at the cremation grounds. At Nigambodh Ghat, the largest cremation ground in Delhi, out of the total 104 cremation platforms, 50 were reserved for COVID. Samdish*, a cremation worker at Nigambodh informs us that he couldn’t go to his home and meet his children for six months. He spoke to them only through video calls. When he used to miss them a lot, he would see them from a distance.

Apart from Samdish, there were several other workers who couldn’t go to their homes for months.

During COVID-19, the government issued guidelines on the last rites of dead bodies. According to these guidelines, the hospitals were required to show the dead body to one member of the deceased's family and then pack the body in a leak-proof plastic bag before sending them for last rites. While there was some awareness about these guidelines in the cities, there was hardly any implementation in the rural areas.

Dozens of dead bodies were cremated at the Shukratal cremation ground along the banks of the Ganges in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. Vishnu*, who cremates dead bodies there tells us that there are several rituals involved in the last rites, all performed by a Brahmin priest. However, during COVID-19, these rituals were not carried out. Brahmins doing the rituals began distancing themselves from the work. Instead, the plastic bag containing the dead body was directly placed on the funeral pyre and the fire was lit there itself.

“Apart from us, nobody else used to come anywhere close to the dead body, but we took the risk,“ says Vishnu. “We are indifferent around death. People call us chandals, they say that we have hearts of stone, we have no compassion. But, this time, we saw the family members of the deceased standing far away from the body of their loved one, while we were the ones who stood next to the departed ones during their last time.”

We spoke to Mahesh Mishra*, a Brahmin priest who performs last rites at the ground located on the Barrage in Bijnor. He smiles and says that he and Valmiki have been friends and colleagues for the last 30 years. But he also maintains a fixed distance from him. When asked why, he says that although he is friends with Valmiki, he cannot touch him, eat with him, or enter his house. Valmiki listens to him but remains quiet. When asked why he cannot mix with Amit, Mishra asserts that he is a Brahmin.

***

Valmiki has been placing dead bodies on funeral pyres and cremating them for the last 40 years. Before him, his father used to do the same work, and before his father, and his grandfather. But his son doesn’t do this work, he plays music in a band.

Be it Valmiki in Bijnor, Samdish in Delhi, or Vishnu in Shukratal, when asked about the future of their community had only one thing to say — education is the only way out. They are making sure their kids are not going to do the work that they are doing.