Ashok Khondare, a 39-year-old vegetable seller in Pune, had already borrowed money to pay for his sister’s treatment when she died in a private hospital two weeks after contacting COVID-19. While trying to overcome the tragedy, he also had to deal with money problems that increased with his sister’s death.
The only available hearse driver charged Rs 5,000 for a 6-km journey to the nearest crematorium – five times the going rate. When Khondare reached there, there was a long queue of bodies and waits of more than a day. He agreed to pay another Rs 7,000 to jump the queue.
“I had been experiencing a terrible situation for a fortnight,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep or eat properly. I wanted to end this as early as possible and didn’t mind paying an irrational amount.”
The second wave of the coronavirus has not only created shortages of oxygen, medicines and hospital beds, but also of wood for funeral pyres, hearses and crematorium slots, forcing people like Khondare to pay exorbitant amounts to perform the last rites of loved ones.
India is reporting by far the highest number of new daily cases globally, and over 4,000 deaths per day – figures that are almost certainly under-reported, according to experts. The huge numbers of deaths are creating backlogs at cremation grounds and shortages of manpower and raw materials.
“There is huge demand for firewood used for funeral pyres at crematoria, but supplies are not sufficient,” said Rohit Pardeshi, a firewood merchant in Satara, Maharashtra.
Due to the prevailing lockdown, there is a shortage of people to cut trees and those workers who are available are 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 another firewood seller in Satara.
In Uttar Pradesh, 24-year-old Mukul Chaudhary faced similar problems after his mother died in Lucknow. The ambulance driver who dropped his mother off at the hospital for 5,000 rupees charged even more to take her body to the crematorium.
“We had to beg him not to overcharge us further,” Chaudhary said. Firewood for the cremation cost double the normal rate, while the priest who performed the last rites charged the family Rs 5,000 – two to five times the usual amount.
Rohit Jangam, a priest in Satara, said many priests there were refusing to enter crematoriums out of fear, and those who were willing were charging higher prices.
“It is too risky to perform the last rites of those died because of coronavirus,” he said. “If someone asks, I do, but I charge more since I am taking the risk.” He declined to disclose how much more he was charging.
For COVID patients who manage to survive, black marketing of medical supplies is rampant, with desperate relatives paying huge sums in what is still a low-income country.
In Delhi, oxygen cylinders have changed hands for as much as Rs 70,000, according to interviews with relatives – 20 times the usual price and many times the monthly salary of an average Indian.
Police have made more than 100 arrests in cases connected with overcharging, including for drugs, ambulance services and hospital beds.
Arveena Sharma, a 28-year-old lawyer from Noida, has helped more than a dozen COVID patients who are friends and relatives get oxygen and medical supplies in the last month. Almost all of them have overpaid significantly.
“They’re like vultures,” she said of those selling black market drugs. “You are standing in front of me with something which might save me and you’re looking at my pocket.”
While the massive Covid-19 vaccination exercise in the country has run into some speed bumps with demand far outpacing delivery, the transgender community in Assam seems to have had more luck than many others. More than 40 members in Guwahati got inoculated on Friday at a special drive carried out by the state directorate of health services. Residents of Tritiya Nivas (shelter home for the third gender) queued up, adhering to the pandemic protocol, and waited their turn to get the shots.
“Most of our members work on the streets, begging. The probability of contracting the virus is maximum among the transgender populace. There are no segregated Covid centres and that is a huge concern. The only way out is to get vaccinated. I approached the directorate of health services and they were more than happy to help us. It was only on the 13th of May that we approached the directorate and today the vaccination drive took place,” says Swati Bidan Baruah, associate vice chairman of the Transgender Welfare Board of Assam.
The shelter home houses 125 transgender people, and 40 of them were vaccinated on the first day. Documents and identity proofs were an issue for many, which they said would be sorted out soon. The second drive will be carried out next week where the representation is expected to be much more. According to Census 2011, Assam has a transgender population of 11,374 and Guwahati alone has over 2,000 people from the community.
“Rome was not built in a day and I am confident that soon all our members will be vaccinated. I am happy that Assam has shown the way to the country when it comes to the vaccination of the transgender community, which society and at times the respective governments have neglected,” says Baruah.
The Transgender Welfare Board has initiated campaigns to ensure that members of the community are masked, wear gloves and adhere to Covid protocols while out on the streets. Till now, no transgender person has been reported Covid positive during the ongoing second wave of the pandemic in the country. One member tested positive last year in Bongaigaon, and later got cured and even donated plasma.
Assam was the first state in the country to add a ‘transgender’ option in the gender category in the civil services examination form. A total of 42 transgender people had applied then for the Combined Competitive (Preliminary) Examination (CCE), 2020, conducted by the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC).
The state high court in an order recently directed the Assam government to create a separate wing for transgender people at the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH). Swati Bidhan Baruah who had filed the PIL in this matter termed it a “landmark order” for the community.
Earlier a southern representative of the National Council for Transgender Persons, Gopi Shankar of Madurai, had written to the health secretaries of the states in south India and Union Territories, underscoring that the transgender community faced discrimination while seeking treatment for Covid-19. As of Friday morning, the had over 43,000 active cases
A legal battle for the community to earn themselves an exclusive segment in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is still on, said Baruah.
The National Commission for Protection of Children Rights (NCPCR) on Friday wrote to the District Magistrate of Dhubri and Kakrajhar districts in Assam, over “rehabilitation of displaced children from West Bengal to Dhubri due to alleged post-poll violence & atrocities meted to them by certain persons who are reportedly politically motivated”.
National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) writes to DM of Dhubri, Assam over ‘rehabilitation of displaced children from West Bengal to Dhubri due to alleged post-poll violence & atrocities meted to them by certain persons who are reportedly politically motivated’ pic.twitter.com/b6W1lOLk8p
Taking cognisance of the plight of children who may have sought refuge in the two districts of Assam that borders Bengal, the NCPCR asked the DMs to immediately visit the camps where refugees from WB are staying and any other such place where these children are residing, to find out their exact numbers and other related facts connected to the brutalities endured by these children in West Bengal.
“The Commission is of the view that statements of all these children be recorded by child welfare police officer of the district (CWPO), and the same be submitted to the Commission for perusal and further necessary action,” the letter read.
The Commission also suggested that the police file zero FIRs in all cases where atrocities against these children have been reported. The Commission asked the DMs to complete the investigation within 3 days of receiving the letter and share the action taken report with them accordingly.
Post-poll violence in West Bengal
Post-poll violence had become a recurrent theme of news emerging out of Bengal following the declaration of assembly election results. Umpteen number of violence against political opponents were reported from the state. In an overwhelming number of such incidents, the victims were BJP supporters and workers, while the accused were said to be the supporters of the TMC party. Over a dozen of BJP workers have lost their lives in the post-poll violence that ensued following the victory of the TMC party in the assembly elections.
The violence unleashed against them forced hundreds of BJP party workers and supporters to flee their villages along with their families. They crossed over to neighbouring Assam, where they are provided temporary shelter on the orders of chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. It is not just the BJP but even CPI(M) which has accused the TMC of killing its workers. Reports of attacks on BSF jawans have also emerged in the media.
BJP leader and the now CM of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma took to Twitter on May 5 to share pictures of several people who were forced to leave the state following purported post-poll violence and come to Assam. In a thread of Tweets, Sarma highlighted the plight of the refugees. Himanta Biswa Sarma confirmed that hundreds of people from Bengal, along with their family members have fled and reached Assam where they are being put up in shelters by the state government.
In fact, on the same day, Nandigram MLA and BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari had also asserted that over a lakh people have already fled Bengal since the post-poll violence erupted in West Bengal from May 2, 2021.