Mumbai: Pity the undertakers – burying and burning all day long, chanting deep into the night yet never keeping pace with the corpses of India‘s COVID-19 crisis.
And all for what?
“For every one body that I perform last rites for, there are a dozen more waiting. There is no social distancing, no sanitisers. It is a critical situation here,” crematorium worker Ram Karan Mishra, 30, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The measly pay – up to Rs 400 ($5.43) a day – offers scant recompense for the risks and round-the-clock shifts that come with end-of-life rituals in a pandemic.
All tasks breed exhaustion; many threaten infection.
Now an innovative crowdfunding initiative has been launched in the capital to help make a gruelling job at least bearable.
Created by management consultant Nandini Ghosh, the plan was hatched last Sunday and was up and running in a day.
Food parcels were just the start, with speed of the essence as coronavirus ravages the world’s biggest democracy.
India accounted for nearly half the COVID-19 cases reported worldwide last week, according to the World Health Organisation, with the country’s 24-hour death toll breaking ever-new records.
The WHO said in its weekly epidemiological report on Wednesday that India accounted for 46% of global cases and 25% of global deaths reported in the past week.
What began as a modest initiative distributing food to 100 workers at a single cemetery has turned into a slick enterprise with Rs 15 lakh ($20,364.11) raised in 48 hours.
Ghosh, 30 and with no expertise of crowdfunding, now has dedicated teams who run logistics, operations and social media accounts. Her teams have reached out to workers at eight crematoriums and graveyards – all in less than a week.
“They are clearly worn out. The pyres are so hot and it is really tough for anybody to stand in the middle of that the whole day. There is a lot we don’t see,” said Ghosh.
What can be seen is chilling.
In scorching heat, Mishra stands by flaming pyres at dusty Ghazipur crematorium, in the heart of COVID-ravaged Delhi, and chants prayers believed to release souls from some of the bodies among India‘s 230,000+ pandemic dead.
Mishra is typical of his trade.
Like thousands of crematorium and graveyard men – never women – he performs last rites while others arrange pyres or collect ashes, and has done so for weeks with no end in sight.
Government data showed infections had passed 21 million on Thursday, threatening more bodies for Mishra to cremate.
If he won’t, nobody will.
“We do this as our duty to the society. Our country is going through a big crisis. If we don’t do it, who will?”
The Ghazipur crematorium, one of Delhi’s busiest, now takes in 100-150 bodies a day, up from about eight a day pre-pandemic.
As Indians of every class hustle for oxygen, ventilators and beds for their sick, the support for diggers is a rare nod to thousands of low-caste workers who feel trapped and overlooked.
“I have sent my family back to our village. I live here now. There is no time. When the food came yesterday, it was a relief for us,” he said, before rushing to perform yet more last rites.
Most crematorium workers come from India‘s marginalised communities and often inherit a job that nobody else much wants.
Indians rely on them yet few appreciate them or understand the dangers that are now routine, campaigners said.
“They are not being taken care of. They have no job security or social security. They are invisible to the world,” said M. Shankar, state convener of Ambedkar Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, a non-profit working for the country’s marginalised Dalit community in southern Bangalore city.
“They have no recognition despite their work in the pandemic. I have not seen a single initiative for their welfare. If not for them, who will do this work?”
Ghosh is an unlikely saviour to the diggers – it is her first foray into crowdfunding and she is learning on the job.
Like many Indians doom-scrolling through lockdown on social media, the 30-year-old read of their plight last weekend.
Within days, food aide led to fresh appeals for sanitisers, drinking water and water coolers. She worried about the dearth of disinfectants for benches where people sit and bodies lie, all of which she can now buy from the money she has raised.
Crowdfunding platform Milaap – host to Ghosh’s initiative – has recorded donations of Rs 145 crore ($19.66 million) from about 400,000 people, for campaigns for ration kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators and cooked meals.
She has been joined by countless other campaigns on Indian crowdfunding platforms, with money and kit both pledged.
The ‘Give India‘ platform has recorded COVID-19 donations worth Rs 276 crore and Ketto has raised Rs 320 crore, according to data posted on their websites.
The site that Ghosh chose says a new COVID relief campaign launches every 20 minutes on its platform, with a 65% rise in webpage visits during the pandemic’s lethal second wave.
“This spreads a message of hope that people are willing to help each other in such unprecedented times,” said Mayukh Choudhury, chief executive officer of Milaap.