Even the dead jostles for space

In Delhi, where it’s tough to buy land to stay put for a lifetime, it will soon become harder to buy land for the afterlife. With manyfold increase in population in the Capital for the last two decades, space to bury the dead has been shrinking.

Rapid urbanisation, escalating land prices, burgeoning population and shrinking graveyards due to encroachment have virtually left no place to bury the dead. Delhi’s population has increased from four lakh in 1901 to around two crore in 2012.

According to the 2011 census, Delhi’s population was around 1.6 crore. The 2001 census put the Capital’s population at 1.37 crore, and in 2004 it was 1.52 crore. The Muslim population in Delhi is estimated to be around 40 lakh and Christians eight lakh.

Reasons behind space crunch

Migration from different states has been a major reason behind Delhi’s population growth. Estimated figures suggest that between two to three lakh migrants from other states settle down in Delhi permanently.

Even rural pockets in the Capital have almost urbanised with multi-storey buildings and offices everywhere. Agricultural land has almost turned into commercial and residential land, and several colonies have come up in the last decade, leaving no space for graveyards.

“The number of graveyards or cemeteries has not increased in proportion to the population for the last three decades. So there is a shortage of cemeteries for both communities,” says Delhi Wakf Board chairperson Chaudhary Mateen Ahmad.

Encroachments upon graveyards, construction of concrete tombs, non-allotment of land for new graveyards and a high demand for burial grounds attached to dargahs and mosques are the biggest problems. “Colonisers have also acquired land beside graveyards, leaving no space for expansion,” says Ahmad.

Number of cemeteries

There are some 100 cemeteries, including small and big ones, for the Muslim community in Delhi. “The government has provided land in two areas — Seelampur and Kondli — for graveyards a few years ago,” says Ahmad.

For the Christian community, there are 11 cemeteries across the Capital. They too got land in two places — Dwarka and Burari — a few years ago due to space crunch to bury the dead. “Seeing no space in many graveyards, we approached the government for land and it gave us two places,” says Father Rebello, chairperson of Delhi Cemetery Committee.

Both communities demanded more land for graveyards. But with rapid urbanisation and growth, the government is also helpless, says Ahmad.

Burial costs

Burial in any graveyard in Delhi won’t cost less than Rs 3,000. At graveyards attached to mosques, it costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 50,000. At the historic Mehndiyan graveyard behind Lok Nayak Hospital, the cost of  burial starts from Rs 50,000 and goes up to a whopping Rs 1 lakh.

“The cost for burial at Delhi Gate graveyard starts from Rs 2,800. But in other graveyards in the city, mostly it starts from Rs 5,000. With people coming from other states and less burial space available, they get overcharged too,” says Mashkarr Rashid, a caretaker who has been looking after Delhi Gate graveyard for 35 years.

Similarly, the cost of a burial in the Christian community is around Rs 5,000. “The cost of burial ranges from Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000. But in a few cemeteries the cost escalates, depending on the space people look for,” says Dominic Julius, associated with Delhi Cemetery Committee.

Graveyard caretakers earn incomes from other avenues as well. “There are shops attached with graveyards, from where people buy coffins and other items. The caretaker or the committee that handles the graveyards gets monthly rent from these shops.”

What caretakers do

Every cemetery for the Muslim community is managed by different committees comprising six to 12 members. “The committee has to be registered with the Delhi Wakf Board,” says Rashid.

For the Christian community, cemeteries are taken care of by two organisations — Delhi Cemetery Committee and the Indian Cemetery Committee. “The cemeteries are divided between both committees and they look after them,” says Dominic Julius, associated with Delhi Cemetery Committee.

Some problems

Around five cemeteries of the Christian community have displayed ‘no space available’ boards, while others are refusing to allow burial of  ‘outsiders or those residing in other localities’.

“We face lot of problems and most are due to space crunch. When there is no space, how are we going to accommodate the dead? Relatives of the dead also erect concrete structures over the burial site,” says Julius.

Similarly, several graveyards belonging to the Muslim community are full. Several committees display ‘no space’ boards due to concrete structures erected by people.

“When we ask them not to erect the structure, they start fighting with us,” says Rashid. The management committee has issued notice that when the grave turns old, one can fill the land with mud to bury another body. “But people don’t allow this and they build concrete structures on the graves,” adds Rashid.

He says family members cast away their loss on a portion of the earth, and they want to stay close to their forefathers and their generation. “But if they don’t allow us to use that space in the next few years, we have to hang a ‘no space’ board. We try to convince them that the space will be used for their generation if they allow filing it with mud, but they don’t understand it and erect concrete structures,” says Zafar Alam of Mayur Vihar graveyard.  

People of both communities build pakki, brick graves though they are asked to build kachhi, non-permanent ones.

Some solutions

The most common method being used by both communities is to reuse graves.
The Christian community has come up with the idea of cemeteries storing the ashes of a body in niches — small shelf-like vaults in cemetery walls — after opening up the grave. “This will give other people space to bury the dead,” says Father Rebello.

In the Muslim community, a notice has been issued for making only kachhi graves. This helps reuse the space. “We can refill the graveyard with three feet of mud and can reuse the space,” says Rashid.

But the permanent solution for both communities lies among the people. “They have to understand and cooperate with caretakers in reusing space, or else the problem will become alarming in a few years,” says Ahmad.

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