NEW DELHI India's teeming cities, where even the living jostle for space, are running out of room for the dead.
India's Hindus cremate their loved ones, but the country's Muslims usually choose burial - and they fear the practice is under threat.
Finding land for burials in urban areas is the primary problem, religious leaders say, as India's cities become ever more congested and every piece of earth is fiercely fought over.
“Go anywhere in India and see the graveyards, they are all full,” said Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chairman of the All India Imams Organisation in New Delhi.
“The government has been overlooking this issue for decades.” Ilyasi said the lack of burial space is not just a problem in major cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata but has spread to many small towns.
Muslims bury the dead as fast as possible, and disapprove of cremation. To meet their needs, increasing numbers of Muslims are joining together to buy small pieces of wasteland to convert into graveyards.
Mohammed Arif, a resident of Noida on the outskirts of Delhi, purchased a government-registered plot along with his siblings and cousin in 2008.
“When my nephew died in a car crash, we struggled to get space in a graveyard in Delhi to bury him,” said Arif. “We want to avoid such a crisis in future.”
Muslims often face widespread discrimination and live in the most densely packed, poorest parts of inner cities.
A 2008 government report on “waqf”, an Arabic word for property donated permanently by Muslims for the benefit of their community, showed that 50 per cent of all waqf plots across India have been encroached on.
“Government offices, hotels and schools have all been constructed and many slums are standing on waqf property,” said Rehman Khan, a lawmaker who sits on the parliamentary waqf committee.
“Don't award us new land but at least give us back the land we own and we will make our own graveyards,” he said.
India's Christian community are increasingly choosing cremation over burial for reasons of both space and cost.
But Father Rebello, chairman of the Delhi Cemetery Committee, said many Indian Christians were hesitant to abandon the tradition of burial.
“Several families are turning one grave into a family grave to accommodate all the members - at least four more can be buried in the same place,” he said.
“We are suggesting families should start cremating the bodies and recently a priest in Delhi was cremated to promote it but we cannot force anyone.” The concept of family graves, or the “tier” system, where coffins are placed one above the other, originated in India in the southern state of Kerala and has slowly gained more acceptance.
Sabha Dayal, a New Delhi professor who specialises in town planning, said civil authorities had to take burial needs as seriously as any other infrastructure requirement. “Advertisements promote new residential premises offering swimming pools and golf courses, but have you ever seen them stating that land has been allotted for cremation and burial?” asked Dayal.
“The problem is that these do not generate revenue,” she said, adding the government often demolished existing graveyards to widen roads or for new commercial ventures.—AFP