NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Within sight of Delhi’s gleaming new metro train, Nawal Kishore slips the body of a baby into the waters of the Yamuna, one of the world’s filthiest rivers.
It’s just another day at work for the 40-year-old man, who has been disposing of the bodies of three or four children, rich and poor, in the polluted waters of the Yamuna or in the equally dirty river bank every day for the last decade.
Most Hindus cremate their dead, but crematoria across India usually turn away the corpses of babies and children under three, citing a tradition which says they should either be buried or submerged in “holy” rivers.
But last month, a court in the Indian capital New Delhi ordered authorities to stop the practice and told crematoria not to turn away corpses -- apparently to little effect.
“I don’t know how many babies I have put there, maybe thousands,” said Kishore, pointing to the dirt-blackened, still waters of the Yamuna, which flows through east Delhi, soaking up the city’s sewage and effluents, most of it untreated.
“I have heard about the court order ... but people are still coming,” he said.
Hindu scholars say there is nothing in the scriptures to oppose the cremation of babies, yet most parents still cling to a tradition which has grown up over centuries.
The Indian capital, a city of 14 million, most of them Hindu, is getting a makeover as it prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, with new flyovers being built, roads widened, and metro rail services extended to new areas.
But the lack of a dignified burial ground for children underlines the shortage of civic amenities, activists say.
The small patch of land by the river, covered with disheveled weeds and human and animal feces, is popularly known as “Bachchewala Ghat” or “child burial ground”.
Before Kishore, his father and grandfather did the same job.
“It’s been our ancestral job,” he said. “Our religion says that babies cannot be cremated. They have to be put in the river or buried. People come here from all over Delhi.”
The court order has obviously made no difference.
There are no police or signboards to prevent the funerals, no barricades to stop people from reaching the river bank and no restrictions on Kishore.
“Where will they go? Will they burn them?” asks Kishore. “Which mother wants to burn her little one? When a child suffers a small burn, we take it to the best of doctors. The government will have to make some alternate arrangement.”
Kishore, who lives in a dusty shack by the river, takes the babies covered in a shroud to the middle of the river on his rickety boat, says a short prayer, and slips them into the water. Their bodies are tied with bricks so they sink.
Parents who do not have the heart to go through the ritual have them buried on the bank.
Kishore charges between 50 and 100 rupees ($1.25 and $2.5) depending on how wealthy the families are.
“It’s hardly a body. Most of them are just flesh and bones. They dissolve in a few days,” he said.
That was not how businessman Shantanu Sharma saw it though.
Sharma was turned away from several crematoria around the city in April when his infant nephew died, and was told to go to the “ghat” by the Yamuna.
“I was shocked and appalled when I came to this place with my nephew’s body,” Sharma said.
“Is this the place? Is this where India is going? They are building flyovers for the Commonwealth Games and we don’t have a decent burial place for our children?”
The Yamuna was a “national disgrace”, he said, with an ambitious, Japanese-aided plan to clean it up making little headway and environmentalists saying the river had only turned murkier over the years.
Sharma buried his nephew on the banks, vowed to end the practice and went to court, resulting in the court order. But the city’s bureaucracy is taking its time to move.
Deep Mathur, spokesman of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, said signboards saying children could be cremated were being put up at crematoria after the court order.
“We would like people to cremate their children but there are religious sentiments involved in this,” he said. “Most people still want to put their babies into the river. We are going to earmark a burial site for children.”