When will Chennai’s crematorium workers receive their due?

Crematorium workers in Chennai have been living a nightmare since COVID deaths peaked. Their demands deserve a fair hearing.

Unlike Bengaluru, there are no housefull boards outside the crematoriums of Chennai. Neither has Chennai witnessed the traumatising scenes of unauthorised, open burning of bodies, as seen in New Delhi. Even before COVID cases spiked last year, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) had directed Chennai crematorium workers and officials to use the space judiciously — a move that probably helped these facilities function efficiently when the second wave hit Chennai hard in 2021 and COVID fatalities rose sharply.

The GCC has also vaccinated a majority of crematorium workers in its 41 crematoriums and 147+ burial grounds in the city, according to a senior civic official. There is no dearth of protective gear such as PPE suits, sanitisers and masks for the workers in these spaces. But if this makes you feel that crematorium workers in the city lead a life of ease and comfort, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Over the years past, the civic body has failed to meet some very basic needs of crematorium workers. COVID has only made the situation worse, as Janakiraman M explains.

A dark-skinned, lanky Janakiraman emerges in his PPE from the searing incinerator room at the Thirumullaivoyal crematorium. He has just cremated the body of a COVID victim in an hour-long procedure. Once it’s over, he collects the ashes, burns his PPE kit and prepares to repeat it all over again. Another body, another hour of work. But for this mentally and physically taxing work, Janakiraman takes home a salary of Rs 10,000 a month — hardly enough to support his family of six. A third generation crematorium worker, he has been doing this for 15 years now.

Because of the inadequacy of their salaries, many of them also have huge debts to repay. “I have a debt of Rs 4 lakh that only increases every month,” said Janakiraman.

What about minimum wages?

“Burial ground and crematorium workers belong to the category of unorganised and informal workers. As the Tamil Nadu government did not bring informal workers under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act, these workers continue to be paid at measly rates. There has to be a regulation that fixes the salaries of these crematorium workers, considering the risky and taxing nature of their job. The state government should also consider them as frontline workers — a tag that would bring dignity and respect for the profession,” said S Palaniammal, Organising Secretary of Pen Tholilalar Sangam (Women Workers Union).

It may be noted here that the GCC had teamed up with not-for-profit organisations and private entities for the maintenance of a few crematoriums. GCC would be the nodal agency but the entities were in charge of maintaining these spaces. They were also responsible for hiring the crematorium workers on contract and paying their salaries. “We made many representations to Lions Club (the partnering entity for the Thirumullaivoyal facility) to increase our salaries. But they fell on deaf ears,” says Janakiraman.

What is interesting here is that those working in establishments maintained by NGOs and private entities are generally regarded as skilled labour belonging to the organised sector. “According to the TN Minimum Wages act (amendment), 2021, workers hired by any such establishment should get a basic pay of Rs 9800, with other benefits such as Provident Fund,” said N Lalitha, advocate, Madras High Court.

Read more: Underpaid, shunned: The sad plight of Chennai’s burial ground workers

Gruelling days

Janikiraman is not alone. Crematorium and burial ground workers earn little for all the work they do; many are still working on contract even after years of service.  But the months of April and May have been especially difficult for these workers as the city reeled under the brutal second wave of the pandemic.

Their work starts as early as 6 am on certain days and goes on late into the night, with no breaks in between. Other than the tasks associated with cremation, the crematorium workers are now also expected to regulate the movement of the relatives of the deceased. They must ensure that those accompanying the bodies abide by the official COVID protocols of the state, which mandate not more than 20 people in crematoriums at any point in time. 

On May 25th, the Thirumullaivoyal crematorium saw 19 bodies as opposed to just two or three bodies that they would receive daily before COVID. The Velangadu Gasifier crematorium at New Avadi Road was one of the busiest, with bodies queueing up in long lines over the last couple of months.

For slogging more than 12 hours a day, crematorium workers take home meagre salaries. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

“There has been a steady rise in the number of bodies coming to the ground. There have been days in the month of May, when we cremated close to 30 bodies each day,” says T Manikandan, a 29-year-old crematorium worker at Velangadu. Thus, the workload for workers such as Manikandan has increased four to five times, but not their salaries. Manikandan takes home a meagre Rs 3000 a month. 

“It is disheartening that our services are not taken into account; this happened during the first wave as well. There were a lot of perks and rewards announced for health care workers but no one cared about us. The plight and contribution of contractual crematorium workers are not recognized. This saddens and demotivates us. Forget decent pay, we do not even hear a word of appreciation for our work.”

Selvam, a crematorium worker.

‘No mention of COVID in death certificates’

Adding to the stress of these workers is the fact that most of them have been away from their families for months now, due to the fear of contracting the virus. This risk is further intensified because of some glaring systemic lapses.

In many cases, the death certificates of COVID patients have no mention of the disease. “These certificates come with just the names. The cause of death is left blank, but the family members of the deceased say that they died of COVID,” says R Janagan, a crematorium worker in Thirunendravur, a few kilometres from Chennai.

A majority of the bodies that are brought to this crematorium are of COVID patients who succumbed to the disease in the government hospitals. Staff crunch in these hospitals leads to this, creating huge risk for crematorium workers and panic. “Workers in the hospitals are stretched due to the enormous numbers of COVID cases. So, they often do not fill out the death certificates properly,” said an informed source in a government hospital. 

Therefore, Janagan stays in a small room at the crematorium itself. A few workers have also sent their families back to their native villages while some have quarantined themselves in a small room. 

Read more: Are informal workers in any better state this lockdown?

Demands of crematorium workers

None of the nine workers we spoke to have health insurance. “It has been years since the maintenance authorities of the crematorium issued health cards for us, or provided for regular medical check-ups. Those were things of the past. But now, more than ever, we deserve and need health cover, considering the heightened risk,” says T Manikandan from the Velangadu crematorium. 

While it is true that private partners and NGOs maintain most crematoriums and burial grounds in Chennai, it would be unfair if GCC gives up all responsibility. Workers feel that the civic body must direct these organisations to make their employment permanent and ensure that they get the pay and benefits that they deserve. 

Also read

(With inputs from S Swaminathan, Intern, Citizen Matters Chennai)

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