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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Delhi's body collector turns 80
By Nivedita Pathak
BBC correspondent in Delhi

Perhaps the most faithful of Delhi's unpaid city servants turns 80 on Tuesday, but has no plans to retire.

Mohammed Habib
Mr Habib: Lifetime's service to the dead
Mohammed Habib has had the grisly task of collecting the city's unclaimed corpses since he was 12.

He says he has disposed of hundreds of bodies - and all for free - in a country where millions live in poverty.

Mohammed Habib and his family live with only a plastic sheet for shelter near the GB Pant hospital in crowded Old Delhi and survive on small handouts from the police and public.

A familiar figure to many residents in the area around the hospital, he has lost track of the number of bodies he has collected.

"I picked up many dead bodies during the riots after Indira Gandhi's assassination and buried countless numbers of people during the partition of India and Pakistan," he told the BBC.

I don't keep track of the numbers of bodies - there could be hundreds of them
Mohammed Habib
The wiry, bespectacled Mr Habib can usually be found just outside the hospital, sitting in his rickshaw waiting for a call from the police to pick up the latest body.

As one might expect, this undertaker with a difference has no fear of dead bodies.

He says there have been times when he has had to sleep with a corpse for the whole night to protect it from animals.

But he stresses that he would never sleep next to the body of a dead woman - he would instead sit by and guard it.

Fitting disposal

When it comes to deciding how to dispose of the bodies, Mr Habib says he looks for proof of their religion.

Mohammed Habib and family
The family have nothing but a tarpaulin for shelter
If the person is Muslim he buries them, otherwise he cremates the body.

His wife, Nabina, who is blind, helps him to carry the corpses.

The two met when he went to pick up the bodies of her parents who had been run over by a train.

They have a daughter who is married and lives with them, and a son who has died.

Mr Habib also once adopted a three-month-old baby whose mother, a Hindu, had been run over by a speeding train.

Himself a Muslim, he brought the girl up according to Hindu tradition and later got her married to a Hindu man.

Unpaid labours

Mr Habib gets nothing from the government for picking up the dead bodies.

Sometimes the police give him 100-200 rupees ($3-4) for removing a body and performing the last rites.

At other times he may be given money by relatives of the dead, but on occasion he has to spend his own money.

He is grateful to the public for their help, which has included two hand-drawn rickshaws and cloth for covering the dead bodies.

But he is angry when he speaks about the police who he says get 2000-3000 rupees ($40-60) for each dead body, but give little to him.

"At least show some respect for the dead by wrapping them in the traditional cloth," he says.

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