New Delhi: In the past one and a half years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore many gaps and loopholes in our healthcare infrastructure, medical essentials like medicines and oxygen, to even a shortage of cremation grounds. From dealing with the disease itself to struggling to save the lives of near and dear ones, the pandemic took a toll on many, physically as well as mentally. In this time of crisis, many organisations and individuals stepped up to help people in distress and strengthen the country’s fight against COVID-19. One such group is ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal’ that took it upon themselves to perform the last rites of people who lost their lives to COVID-19.
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty, Padma Shri Awardee and President, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal said that he and his team cremated over 4,000 bodies during the pandemic. Recounting heart-wrenching stories of the suffering he witnessed firsthand, Dr Shunty, said the enormity of the task at hand kept him and his team going even when faced with extreme distress and disturbing circumstances. Keeping spirits up even after working for 18 hours at a stretch and continuing to do the job even after contracting the disease himself along with members of his family and team, required divine intervention, Dr Shunty feels. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
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NDTV: During the COVID-19 pandemic, what kind of challenges did you face in cremating dead bodies?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: Our 25 years of experience came in handy because I, my warriors (teammates and children) who have done this work before are well versed with the process – how to pack a body, carry it to the ambulance, how to take it out from the ambulance, cremate and if we there are too many bodies, then how to cremate them together. But, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we never imagined getting 125 bodies to cremate in a single day. I am proud to say that my teammates worked relentlessly for 18 hours every day, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
NDTV: One of your ambulance drivers passed away due to COVID-19 which would have caused fear among other drivers. How did you inspire your fellow COVID warriors to work on the frontlines?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: It was such a scary situation that people would deny touching body of their own family members. In some cases, we saw that children took away earrings of their mother, watch and even took thumb impressions. When one of my drivers passed away, others 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. I am not afraid of dying. In fact, 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.
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NDTV: Your family and children contracted COVID-19 twice. What motivated you to continue working on the frontlines?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: When I contracted COVID-19 for the first time, I developed a severe disease but got saved. When it happened the second time, the entire family and staff tested positive and for 22 days I slept in my car, outside a cremation ground and sometimes in the parking area. I longed to see my children and family, but I was passionate about serving people.
NDTV: Sewa is an integral part of Sikhism and is taught since childhood. How much did the idea of Sewa help you during COVID-19?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: 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.) I used to chant Gurbani in my heart regularly and overcame my fears. We never backed down and never will. We hope that we don’t face the third COVID wave, but if it comes, we are prepared with 24 vans and ambulances to carry dead bodies.
During the pandemic, apart from carrying over 4,000 dead bodies, we picked up the ashes of over 1,300 people and immersed them in Haridwar. We provided an air-conditioned mortuary as well, since hospitals were running out of space to keep the dead.
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NDTV: How much pressure was there on you and your team’s mental health and how did you manage it?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: 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.” Then there was this lady from the Supreme Court who with folded hands requested us to cremate her young brother’s body and there was no one to perform last rites. I even buried a five-month-old girl who died of COVID-19. There was also this woman who lost her husband and two adult sons. It was scary.
NDTV: How did you motivate your team to continue the fight against the COVID-19?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: I used to narrate stories of Bhagat Singh. How at an age of 23, he was executed. I used to tell them about the family of Guru Gobind Singh and how they stood undaunted for protecting their country and community. I used to say, ‘any dead body that comes here, treat it like it’s from your own family’.
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NDTV: What challenges did you face in ensuring dignified cremation for all?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: The cremation ground at Seemapuri in East Delhi had space to cremate only 20-22 bodies. But during the pandemic, I requested the commissioner of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) to open the adjacent plot of 1,000 yards for open cremation and they accepted our request. You won’t believe that a couple of people used to leave the body of their family members unattended. And when we would call and ask them to come and perform the last rites, they would say, “Shunty Ji, we are broken; we have spent hours at the hospital, mortuary and cremation ground. We are back at home; don’t have the energy anymore. We have full faith in you; please take care of the cremation.” We made the cremation ground a place of pilgrimage and arranged for food, water, fans, chairs, and tent. God gave us the strength to provide our service. We used to pick up bodies from homes as people would call us and say, everyone in the house is in quarantine; there is no one to take care of the body, please help.
NDTV: How much support did you get from people and the government?
Dr Jitender Singh Shunty: Since the cremation ground we were handling comes under the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), we got full support from MCD. But we didn’t take any help from any government. Once we ran out of woods and I was heartbroken. The local vendors were overcharging and giving exorbitant price quotes. To address the challenge, I made an appeal on social media and within five days, we received 500 tonnes of wood. We appealed for an ambulance and before we knew it, there was a line of ambulances parked outside the cremation ground. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar also sent us two ambulances from Mumbai.
Saluting the work done by all COVID warriors and frontline workers, Dr Shunty had one message for his fellow citizens, ‘Take responsibility and not leave everything to the government when it comes to handling a crisis like COVID-19.’
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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.