- Mr Shunty received Padma Shri for social work done in the last 25 years
- Mr Shunty established Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal in 1995 to help people
- Mr Shunty and his team cremated over 4,000 bodies during the COVID-19
New Delhi: “I believe this award (Padma Shri) is a responsibility and a trust the President of India has bestowed upon us for continuing the social work. I will take it as a challenge”, said Jitender Singh Shunty, Padma Shri Awardee and President, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal. On November 9, Mr Shunty was conferred with the Padma Shri award in the category ‘social work’ for his relentless service to poor people for 25 years now and contribution during COVID-19 by running ambulances to ferry and cremate bodies. In an interview with NDTV post receiving the prestigious award, Mr Shunty said,
I am not the sole bearer of this award. I dedicate it to all my COVID warriors – ambulance drivers and people working on the ground with me in the cremation ground and assisting in transporting patients and carrying bodies.
President Kovind presents Padma Shri to Shri Jitender Singh Shunty for Social Work. A social activist in Delhi, he cremates unclaimed corpses with all due dignity. pic.twitter.com/AFFbBoZLJI
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) November 9, 2021
Recounting his journey, Mr Shunty shared that he was born in a poor family and lost his father at an early age. As a child, he witnessed multiple hardships and did odd jobs to make ends meet. It is in 1995, after Mr Shunty’s business picked up some momentum that saw him start his own organisation ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal’. The organisation was established with the objective of saving lives through promoting availability, accessibility and effectiveness of emergency services.
Talking about the idea behind serving people, Mr Shunty said,
I am a follower of Bhagat Singh, who was executed at an age of 23. I belong to a (Sikh) community that believes in ‘sewa’ (service) and since childhood, we have heard, “Deh shiva bar mohe ihai, shubh karman te kabhun na taron, na doron ar syon jab jaye laron, nischay kar apni jeet karon” (O power of Akaal, give me this boon, may I never ever shirk from doing good deeds. That I shall not fear when I go into combat. And with determination I shall be victorious.)
Since the inception of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, Mr Shunty and his team have been taking care of the cremation of unclaimed bodies and those of poor people; providing ambulance service, mortuary box, hearse van. In the last 25 years, the team has cremated over 56,000 bodies.
The team stepped up even during the COVID-19 pandemic and worked for 18 hours at a stretch given the enormity of the task at hand. In the last one and a half years of COVID-19, the team cremated 4,000 dead bodies. Talking about his motivation and the belief that kept him and his team going even when faced with extreme distress and disturbing circumstances, Mr Shunty said,
People used to say that, ‘you will die while serving people. It’s an infectious disease, stay home.’ But our religion says, “muhi marne ka chao hai, maro ta har ke duar” (I long to die; let me die at the Lord’s door.) I thought people are dying even at their homes so why not I continue with my service; I don’t mind dying at the cremation ground.
To ensure the safety of his team and at the same time, assure that the COVID warriors are at the top of their game, Mr Shunty arranged for courses on first aid and dead body management for his frontline warriors.
Mr Shunty believes the COVID-19 pandemic was an eye-opener for many as it showed the real face of people. Many found a family, a confidant in a stranger. While signing off, Mr Shunty gave the message of preparing for the future and helping one and all. He said,
During the pandemic, in many cases, even the family didn’t come forward to perform the last rites. On contrary, strangers like you and me, came forward only to make us realise that everyone can be a protector. The one sitting on the borders, guarding the country, is not the sole protector. Every civilian is police.
Earlier in September, in an exclusive interview with NDTV, Mr Shunty had shared heart-wrenching stories of the suffering he witnessed firsthand. Recounting one such story, Mr Shunty said,
The incidents that I have witnessed haunt me at night. Once a 20-year-old girl brought her father’s body to me and requested to perform the last rites. She said, “All night I was searching for a hospital but failed to find any and eventually my father took his last breath in the car itself. Now I am struggling to find any space for cremation.”
While working on the frontlines, Mr Shunty and his family tested positive for COVID-19 twice, he lost one of his ambulance drivers and even slept in a car, outside a cremation ground and sometimes in the parking area. But the passion to serve people kept the COVID warrior and his team going.
During the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India’s 12-hour Swasth Bharat, Sampann Bharat telethon, Mr Shunty talked about the mental and emotional difficulties he faced while being a frontline warrior. He said,
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cremated 1,366 bodies and ferried over 2,600 patients. One of my drivers, who was associated with me for the last 25 years, died within two days. Seeing this, other drivers obviously go scared but I asked them a simple question, if we are at a war and one of our soldiers is killed, will we step back or continue to fight? They said, we will come down harder to avenge our loss. So I said, in the same way, we also cannot give up the fight against COVID-19 in the face.
While talking about the horrors of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Shunty said,
What I saw in the second wave sends a chill down my spine.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.