It has been 35 years since the Christian community of Thane began using land atop a hillock abutting the MIDC as a cemetery, but this land is still awaiting a boundary wall, lights, water or even road access. Coffins must be hauled up 200 steps to reach the path to the cemetery, a half-kilometre trudge.
The pandemic and lockdown have only served to exacerbate the woes being faced by the five-lakh strong community in Thane. In pre-lockdown times, as many as 10 labourers were engaged to carry the coffin up the steps of the hillock but now, families must struggle with the laborious task themselves.
Pramila Saroj recalls how hard it was for their family to carry her mother's body to the cemetery after she passed away last month. “We had a very tough time,” says Saroj. “Four men from the family took the coffin up the steps. They had to stop every now and then for a breather because they are not used to it all,” she said. She remembers how the cortege had to walk over other tombs as they navigated the narrow path on the way to the allotted space, with tombs on either side of the path. Though it was a bright afternoon, they were afraid to be there for long because the area is “like a jungle”, she says.
Edwin Jacob, whose uncle passed away in May and was buried in the same cemetery, says he got his friends to help carry the coffin, as labourers were not available in the lockdown. One of his friends slipped and suffered a leg injury, not being used to such rocky terrain. They had wanted to take his uncle’s body to a cemetery in Mulund but were turned away, as the family was from Thane and their church was not registered with that cemetery.
“My grandfather was buried in the same (Thane) cemetery five years ago. There is so much wild growth there that we don’t know where exactly his coffin is, now,” says Jacob. The women of the family were asked to stay away from both, the burial and a subsequent ritual, in view of the terrain and safety concerns.
For almost 25 years now, the community has demanded the development of the land as a cemetery. Sanoj Yadav, caretaker of the cemetery and pastor of the New Life Church has been following the matter up with the authorities at various levels. “I have a bundle of 200 entry slips for Mantralaya as proof of my numerous visits since 2013, but the work has not been done,” he says.
He had even filed a police complaint in March 2019 after some drug addicts desecrated the graves at the cemetery. It happens often, he says, the place being a haven for such elements, who have stolen the cross and vandalised coffins in the past. The path to the cemetery is strewn with discarded alcohol bottles. The land has been encroached by as many as 45 tenements, since there is no security provided. “Such neglect is hurting the feelings of our community. We are only asking for a decent cemetery, not for bungalows,” says Yadav.
The land belongs to the revenue department. When in November 2018, the then TMC municipal commissioner, Sanjeev Jaiswal,wrote to the Thane district collector, Rajesh Narvekar, to transfer the land in Wagle Estate, Hanuman Nagar, as a Christian cemetery, it was the community’s first victory in the ongoing struggle. Now, the matter is pending at the Divisional Commissioner’s office in Konkan Bhavan. Once this authority forwards the matter to the revenue ministry, the community can hope for the land to be developed as a cemetery, after approval by the ministry.
Lokesh Chandra, who holds additional charge as Divisional Commissioner, Konkan Bhavan, did not respond to messages and calls.