Covid-19 in India: Good Samaritan gives dignified farewell to discarded victims

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

New Delhi - The selfless act of Jitender Singh, alias Shunty, has struck a big chord with Delhi residents, who are living on the edge due to the pandemic.

By Joydeep Sen Gupta in New Delhi

Published: Mon 10 May 2021, 10:15 PM

Death is alive and the only constant that’s stalking the panic and grief-stricken hapless Indians.

But who will give a dignified farewell to the Covid-19 victims, whose lives are being snuffed out like fireflies, as the Narendra Modi-ruled Indian government appeared to have dropped the ball on contagion management and a bereaved nation mourns for the departed?

Jitender Singh, alias Shunty, 60, has emerged as the messiah for the victims -- many of whose relatives have either run away in fear of contracting SARS-COV-2, which causes the viral disease, or the bodies were unidentified. He has been upholding the values of (service) that his faith Sikhism puts a premium on and his selfless act is a paean to humanism amid these unprecedented hard times.

Singh, a resident of Vivek Vihar in eastern fringes of Delhi, India’s national capital, took to arranging the last rites of the discarded bodies following a life-altering incident that had occurred over 25 years ago.

He vividly remembers that he had gone to the Nigambodh Ghat, a crematorium on the banks of Yamuna river in Delhi, for the last rites of one of his kin.

At the crematorium, he came across a man foraging for logs in a funeral pyre, whose embers were yet to be extinguished.

A curious Singh asked the man why he was foraging for logs when the cremation was yet to be over.

The man said he and his wife -- Singh recalled that the couple was from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state -- did not have the financial resources to cremate their child, which those days would cost a princely sum of around Dh200.

Singh, who was a car dealer back in the day, was shaken out of his complacent stupor after he heard the couple’s ordeal.

Soon, he and his friends pulled in money to cremate the child.

Later, that evening, while interacting with his friends, Singh had an epiphany.

“Why do some people indulge in spending millions in big fat weddings and other luxury materialistic goods, while many don’t even have the financial resources to give half a decent farewell to their loved ones?” he told on Monday afternoon while supervising the disposal of two Covid-19 victims' bodies to a crematorium in Delhi.

An emotional Singh made giving respectable last rites to the impoverished dead his calling in life, irrespective of caste, creed, and religion, and that has been his (passion) since that life-altering incident.

The thought made him start the Shahid Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, a voluntary and charitable organisation, in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR).

Over the years, the organisation has grown and now has eight drivers for a fleet of 18 vehicles, including hearse carriages and ambulances, and a 22-member team.

“Except the drivers, the rest of my team members, including my two sons, are volunteers. We’ve cremated and buried over 24,000 bodies since 1995. We’ve also ferried over 44,000 bodies in our hearse vans to date,” he said.

The onset of Covid-19 in March last year changed his daily schedule and the altered pattern has become more pronounced since early April this year when Delhi was hit by a second and more lethal wave of the viral outbreak, whose mortality rate has been far higher than the initial tryst with the contagion.

“I’ve been starting my day at 7am and end at the dead of night in the parking lot of my house, where I sleep in one of the ambulances, as I don’t want my family members to get infected,” he said.

However, despite the abundant precaution, his two sons --- Manish Pal Singh, 35, a mass communication professional, and Jyotjeet Singh, 26, who has a degree from the United Kingdom (UK) in disaster management -- and his wife have tested Covid-19 positive.

“Three of my drivers and the manager are out of action after they tested Covid-19 positive. But our work must go on, as Delhi’s crematoria, burial grounds, and cemeteries are overflowing with the dead. We’ve performed the last rites of over 2,000 Covid-19 victims since March 23, 2020, the day the Delhi government had announced lockdown restrictions,” he added.

Singh, who has changed his line of business from a car to a real estate dealer a little over a decade ago, also owns eight refrigerated mortuary boxes that were used during the farewell (visit) of former Indian Prime Ministers such as Atal Behari Vajpayee, Inder Kumar Gujaral and ex-Union ministers like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj.

Singh claimed that he has no political affiliations, and his work is “to serve humanity at large”.

The raging contagion has emboldened his “dear cause”, as he plans to ramp up his resources amid a near-disintegration of state-run infrastructure owing to the contagion.

“I’m constantly guided by the encouraging words of my mother, who wanted me to help people without fear or favour. She always told me, if you’ve started such a noble deed, never stop no matter what obstacles may come in your way,” added Singh while apologetically disconnecting the call to attend to the last rites of another Covid-19 victim.

Earlier this year, the Modi government conferred upon Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India, on Singh for his social work.

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