by B Sivaraman — 17/05/2021

Allahabad: The recent images of bloating human bodies floating on the Ganga, with crows and dogs picking on the carcasses have shocked the nation and made headlines around the world. Reports of burial of hundreds of dead bodies in riverside sand outside towns in Uttar Pradesh like Unnao and Kanpur have also surfaced.

It is clear that most of these are the bodies of Covid-19 patients and the reason for setting them afloat is both a sharp increase in deaths and skyrocketing costs of cremation.

According to Shiv Sevak Singh, a Bahujan Samaj Party corporator in Allahabad, the number of deaths has increased four to five times during the second wave and the official figures of corona deaths put out by the district administration also reflects this.

Shiv Sevak Singh says, “The government never made arrangements for proper disposal of the dead-bodies. Now a District Monitoring Committee has been formed after the Allahabad HC’s intervention, which in just an eyewash and is not doing anything worthwhile”.

He further says, “Grave-digging and transportation costs have increased to anywhere above Rs.10,000. That is why poor people, who cannot afford this, leave the dead-bodies anywhere along the banks of the Ganga. They cover the body in cloth and push it to the midstream but, due to shallow waters, the bodies get washed ashore after some distance downstream, causing panic there”.

Regarding the cost of cremation, Jitender, a young local leader from the Samajwadi Party living among a predominantly Mallah community cluster 5 minutes away from the Rasoolabad Ghat, says: “Rasoolabad Ghat crematorium is now charging Rs.22,000 for cremation with firewood. Besides that the ambulance or the van taking the dead-body to the ghat charges anywhere from Rs.8000 to Rs.15,000. If they are to come from deep interior areas, people may have to shell out Rs.20,000 even.

According to him total sanitisation of the ambulance van after every trip—using first soap water and then clean water in a petrol bunk near the ghat, now costs at least Rs.3000 whereas it used to cost Rs.650 earlier.

“In the electric crematorium also they are supposed to charge Rs.500 only but they charge Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000 illegally, including the fee for those who carry the body inside. They first claim that the crematorium is not functioning and then do the cremation only after extorting a lot of money”.

According to Jitender a delegation from the Samajwadi Party went and met the District Collector and he agreed for a fixed rate of Rs.5000 per cremation. But he says this is still not being implemented/enforced yet in all cases. For poor people, the administration is now saying that they would give free firewood and conduct cremation free. But that requires lots of paperwork, showing their Aadhaar card, ration card, and visits to different offices and other hassles. People cannot be doing this paperwork during a lockdown, especially with the body waiting to be cremated.

“The custom here is that even the neighbours don’t cook food in their houses until the dead-body in the neighbourhood is cremated” says Jitender.

Locals living along the river are panic-stricken after seeing scores of bodies floating in the Ganga, that they know belong to victims of Covid-19.

“Some very deep and elemental fear has gripped them about their future. The area near the ghat looks deserted and people seldom come out” says Babloo, an egg and cigarette seller, whose stall is located around 200 meters away from the Rasoolabad Ghat.

According to him the local community used to depend on the river for its livelihood—either as fishers, or as boat people ferrying tourists or local people, or for transporting firewood and other goods across the river for the agricultural fields or for the upper stretches of the industrial area of Naini located on the other side of the Ganges. They used to wash their cattle in the river. Their children used to play in the river and they all used to bathe in the river.

“Now, after seeing the bodies, they are terribly scared to go anywhere near the river. They think they too would get Covid-19 from Ganga Maiya. It is very traumatic for them that their revered Mother has become an ‘untouchable’! ”, says Babloo.

Yash Malviya a prominent poet and literary personality of Allahabad says, “The people are engulfed by panic at the sight of floating bodies and have turned fatalistic. This reflects their helplessness. Even when they bury the bodies in the riverbed sand in the officially earmarked places, rain and animals bring the bodies out and they too start floating in the river. There are no alternative sites for burial other than in riverbanks”.

Zafar Bakht, a scion of a royal Muslim family in Allahabad and a key nodal point for most of the civil society initiatives, says, “This is not only BJP’s failure. For a very long time, successive governments have failed to beef-up health infrastructure. Among community elders, the floating bodies has evoked memories of what their parents told them about an earlier Mahamari (the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic) which witnessed similar floating of bodies. It is an unprecedented gloomy scenario”.

Immersing the dead in the Ganga, considered a very holy river by India’s predominantly Hindu population, is an ancient practice. However, in recent years this has been discouraged by state authorities as part of the government’s initiative to clean up the Ganga.

In 2016 the National Green Tribunal (NGT), while hearing a petition about 100 dead bodies getting washed ashore between Kanpur and Unnao, observed that every year at least 3000 bodies were immersed in Ganges in the city of Varanasi alone. It pulled up the government for not doing anything to end this practice which poses major health risks. Subsequently, the NGT imposed a fine of Rs.50,000 on anyone dumping any waste into Ganga like ashes of the dead, and banned the immersion of dead bodies.

The Narendra Modi Government, which came to power in 2014, allocated more than Rs.3000 crore to reduce pollution in Ganges as part of the Namami Gange project, one of its flagship schemes. Under this initiative, electric crematoriums were supposed to replace the thousands of traditional cremation sites along the river but these were established only in some 40–50 locations.

Following these measures the practice of immersing bodies in the river did come down considerably. However, now the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and inability of authorities to even arrange decent funerals for the population has made a mockery of all these efforts to ‘clean up’ the Ganga.

Many of those whose bodies are immersed in the river are from poor backgrounds and mostly from the Dalit, Most Backward and Other Backward Castes.  But according to local political activists as cremation materials and cremation workers are expensive or virtually unavailable and the administration has not made alternative arrangements, even the bodies of some upper caste people are being immersed in the river.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has erased caste distinctions temporarily, at least among the dead” says Jitender, the Samajwadi Party worker.

B.Sivaraman is an independent researcher based in Allahabad. He can be reached at [email protected]