Graveyards in big Indian cities running out of space due to Covid-19 pandemic

Rapid development in and around Indian cities has shrunk the space for the dead, and the pandemic exacerbated the problem. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

NEW DELHI - The tombstones in the area designated for Covid-19 victims at Delhi's biggest Muslim graveyard - the Jadid Qabristan Ahle Islam - tell a story of permanent exile. Many of the bodies here are of patients from states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, individuals who came to Delhi for treatment but could not return to be buried closer to home.

The authorities in the city still do not permit bodies of Covid-19 victims to be taken back because of sanitation protocols, forcing families to bury them in Delhi's graveyards.

This burden of interring the dead from smaller towns and rural parts of the country is one of the contributing factors to a problem for graveyards in big Indian cities - they cannot keep pace with the country's growing Covid-19 death toll.

India, which currently has the third-highest number of deaths due to the pandemic, has recorded more than 123,000 fatalities.

The Delhi cemetery carved out close to nearly 1ha more of land last month to bury Covid-19 victims after it ran out of previously allocated space. This was its third such allocation since April. A total of around 2.4ha have been earmarked so far and the graveyard now has space for another 500 bodies.

While the number of daily nationwide deaths has fallen to around 500 currently - down from more than 1,000 in September - fears of a fresh spike prompted by the ongoing festive season continue to worry graveyard management committees.

If the pandemic gathers pace again, there is a danger of cemeteries running out of space, Mr Mohammed Shamim, the supervisor of the graveyard, set up in 1924, told The Straits Times.

At its peak, it received more than 15 bodies of Covid-19 victims daily. This fell to three on Oct 31, when ST visited the site.

At least two smaller Muslim graveyards in Delhi also ran out of space earlier this year, following which the authorities acquired more land.

Another Muslim graveyard, in Kopri in Navi Mumbai, stopped accepting bodies of Covid-19 victims in September for the same reason. Families who go there to bury their dead are being asked to approach other graveyards. It is a problem that has also been reported from Christian cemeteries in Bangalore.

Rapid development in and around Indian cities, required to accommodate the growing number of living, had shrunk the space for the dead even before the pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated this problem with its additional challenges, such as opposition from locals, who fear a spread of infection from bodies of Covid victims and have prevented bodies from being buried in neighbouring graveyards.

An official at the Delhi Waqf Board told ST it had designated one of its graveyards in the city to bury Covid-19 victims in April but opposition from residents in the area halted the practice a few weeks after the burials had begun.

Government rules also mandate deeper and wider graves for victims of Covid-19, necessitating more space. Such graves are more than 3m deep compared to around 1.2m for others. They are also wider and require additional spacing in between to ensure existing graves are not disturbed while new ones are being dug.

Another key concern is that, unlike non-Covid graves, which are reused, there is no certainty of when graves of Covid victims can be dug up to bury other bodies. "A body decomposes in around two years, following which we reuse the grave but the government has told us not to touch a Covid grave for at least five years to avoid any spread of infection," said Mr Mohammed Siraj, the treasurer of Noor-ul Islam Trust, which manages the graveyard in Kopri.

The graveyard, which is spread over 2,500 sq m, stopped taking Covid-19 victims after burying its 46th victim in September. Set up 35 years ago, it has already begun reusing its 250 non-Covid graves. "We have written to the government asking for additional land but are yet to hear back from the authorities," he added.

In Bangalore, Christian families with Covid-19 victims were also turned away from certain graveyards in September, when the pandemic was peaking in the city. Mr J.A. Kanthraj, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Bangalore, told The Straits Times that at least six Catholic graveyards faced such a crisis and that some families had to cremate their dead. "The biggest problem is that the city's graveyards are running out of space," he said.

The protocol for graves of Covid victims was recently relaxed in Bangalore, easing some of the pressure on city graveyards. "We can now even bury a Covid victim in the same grave as his or her other family members but our demand made two years back to the government for a new burial ground for the Catholic community is something we continue to push for," Mr Kanthraj added, noting that an early allocation of land by the government is necessary to mitigate the serious crisis.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the local municipal corporation, has identified space for around 10 burial grounds on the outskirts of the city but has yet to hand over the land for bodies to be interred.

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