From its capital, Delhi, to the western state of Gujarat and the southern tech city of Bengaluru, India has been overwhelmed by a surge in deaths after it was swept by a second wave of coronavirus infections. Cases early this month topped more than 400,000 a day, up from fewer than 10,000 reported earlier this year, for the world’s highest single-day figure and experts say even that figure is almost certainly conservative.
With overburdened hospitals and scant supplies of oxygen and drugs for an already creaky healthcare system, the numbers of cremations and burials reported by several major cities are far larger than official death tolls, interviews with crematorium and cemetery workers and a review of government data reveal.
Bodies mount in West India
In Surat, a city of six million people in Gujarat that is best known for its diamond-polishing industry, at least seven crematoriums and graveyards saw a more than threefold rise in the number of cremations and burials in April versus a year ago.
India’s Hindu majority, along with some other groups, cremates the dead, while the minority Muslim and Christian communities usually bury them.
The Surat data gathered from site visits and logs reviewed by Reuters shows that the locations buried or cremated more than 6,520 bodies in April 2021, up from about 1,980 bodies in April 2020, during the early part of the first pandemic wave.
Official data for Surat shows, however, a total of only 585 COVID-19 deaths recorded by both the city and district in April this year.
Cremations and burials compared to last year
April 2021 and April 2020 for major crematoriums ◆ and graveyards ●
The discrepancy between the number of excess deaths compared to a year ago and those officially linked to COVID-19 raises questions about the integrity of fatality data from the district, at a time when healthcare experts have flagged concerns about significant underreporting of virus deaths across India.
Surat municipal commissioner Banchha Nidhi Pani said large numbers of patients had come from outside the city, swelling its figures. State government data shows 1,205 suspected COVID-19 patients who died in Surat in April were from other places, he added.
A cremation crisis in the capital
Nowhere has the crisis been more acute than in New Delhi, the capital. Last month, fewer than 20 of its more than 5,000 beds in intensive care units (ICU) dedicated to treating coronavirus patients were free at any time. Patients rushed from hospital to hospital, with some dying on the streets or at home, while oxygen trucks moved under armed guard to augment stocks running perilously low.
Some of Delhi’s largest crematoriums had to clear space in car parks to burn the dead. A patch of adjacent waste ground was cleared at the Seemapuri crematorium for the task. Cremations, sometimes 30 or 40 at a time, built up an invisible wall of heat that seared those on the roofs of nearby four-storey buildings.
The crematorium is one of several across the capital that worked round the clock during the city’s pandemic peak, sending up billows of smoke as the bodies of victims arrived every few minutes.
Crematoriums in Delhi
Locations reported by Delhi Municipal Corporation
The Ghazipur crematorium in east Delhi also resorted to burning bodies using extra space in the car park.
A few days after the extra space was demarcated, a tree beside the pyres lay half burnt on the ground.
A lack of firewood
India’s Hindu majority cremates its dead, and the huge numbers of deaths mean bodies stacking up for cremation and shortages of labour and raw materials.
“There was huge demand for firewood used for funeral pyres at crematoria, but supplies were not sufficient,” said Rohit Pardeshi, a firewood merchant in Satara, a city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
A local lockdown to rein in the pandemic has brought a shortage of workers to cut trees, with those available asking for higher wages.
“This has created a shortage of firewood and lifted prices,” Pardeshi said.
Retail prices for firewood are up by at least 30 percent, and have more than doubled in some areas, said a second firewood seller in the same city.
A crematorium in Sarai Kale Khan, a neighbourhood in the east of New Delhi, has also had to expand.
Shallow graves in the sand
Some relatives have even struggled to find space and firewood to perform the last rites of their loved ones.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, drone footage showed a sea of orange on the banks of the Ganges, which many Hindus consider one of India’s holiest rivers. But a closer look revealed saffron-coloured palls, in line with Hindu custom for final rites.
At least two spots by the banks of the Ganges accommodated more than 500 shallow graves, some of them suspected to be those of people who have died from COVID-19. Rains have washed away the sand to expose more of the graves, affording yet more evidence of the agony.
Authorities in the southern tech hub of Bengaluru have converted a disused granite quarry into a cremation facility, flattening its base and setting up iron platforms.
After stringent lockdowns across many states, daily cases have fallen by more than half from the peak of the second wave. Medical aid from foreign donors has also benefited many hospitals.
In rural areas with sparse healthcare arrangements, however, testing faces challenges, with many people dying without ever being counted in government statistics.
Many experts believe it is only a matter of time before a third wave later in the year.
Graphics and visual editing by
Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez
Alasdair Pal, Rupam Jain, Sumit Khanna and Rajendra Jadhav