Local officials in northern Uttar Pradesh state ramp up efforts to combat water burial of suspected Covid victims, after more than 100 corpses wash up on river banks in recent days.
Authorities in northern India have urged poor residents to stop dumping their dead in river Ganges and offered to pay for cremations, days after scores of dead bodies – suspected to be Covid-19 victims – were found floating down the river as the country battles a ferocious surge in coronavirus infections.
"Please do not perform water burial of bodies into Ganga river, but cremate them. If any person is unable to bear expenses of cremation, please inform us. We will make arrangements," police announced in Uttar Pradesh state's Gahzipur area.
"Ghazipur administration has capped price of firewood at Rs 650/quintal & 'dom raja' [cremation ground caretaker] would not take more than Rs 500 for cremating a body," Ghazipur District Magistrate MP Singh said.
He said those unable to bear expenses of cremation of their dead will be provide INR 5000 [$68] and the government will "bear all expenses of cremation."
Earlier this week, local media in India broadcast images of bodies washed up in the Ganges river as crematoriums are overwhelmed with Covid victims, wood for funeral pyres is in short supply and poor villagers have opted for water burials instead.
#WATCH | Ghazipur: A police official makes announcement -- "Please do not perform water burial of bodies into Ganga river, but cremate them. If any person is unable to bear expenses of cremation, please inform us. We will make arrangements." pic.twitter.com/cfdQrg7CTo— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) May 14, 2021
Nets to catch bodies
This comes as neighbouring Bihar state introduced fish nets to catch bodies after 71 corpses washed ashore at Chausa village in Buxar district of Bihar on Tuesday.
They were reportedly floating downstream from eastern Uttar Pradesh districts.
"A net has been placed in Ganges in Ranighat, bordering UP & Bihar," said Bihar’s water resources minister Sanjay Jha on Twitter.
A top Bihar government official, requesting anonymity, told The Hindu newspaper that "some bodies floating in from the Uttar Pradesh side were found tangled" in the net on Wednesday.
The official also said patrolling along the border "has been intensified so that people could not throw bodies in the river."
Surinder, a resident of Ghazipur who uses one name, said villagers didn't have enough wood to cremate their dead on land.
"Due to the shortage of wood, the dead are being buried in the water," he said. "Bodies from around 12-13 villages have been buried in the water."
3/3 Last rites of 71 bodies performed as per protocols. A net has been placed in Ganges in Ranighat, bordering UP & Bihar. We've advised UP administration to be vigilant; our district admin is keeping vigil too. Advise all to give all respect to those dead, and Maa Ganges.— Sanjay Kumar Jha (@SanjayJhaBihar) May 11, 2021
Covid-19 infections pass 24 million
On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of Covid-19 through India's vast countryside, as 4,000 people died from the virus for the third straight day and total infections crossed 24 million.
India is in the grip of the highly transmissible B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus, first detected there and now appearing across the globe. Modi said his government was "on a war footing" to try to contain it.
"The outbreak is reaching rural areas with great speed," he said, addressing farmers in a virtual conference. "I want to once again warn all ... those who live in villages about corona."
Although about two-thirds of Indians live in rural towns and villages where healthcare facilities are limited, it was the first time Modi has specifically referred to the virus' spread through the countryside since a second wave erupted in February.
If any person is unable to bear expenses of cremation (of the body of their relative/family member) & goes to any crematorium, we will provide them with Rs 5000 immediately & bear all expenses of cremation: Ghazipur DM MP Singh (2/2) pic.twitter.com/qSoeE7yloE— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) May 14, 2021
Shallow graves and bodies in the river
Coronavirus is raging in India's hinterland, where in some places bodies are being buried in shallow graves or given up to rivers and the sick have little hope other than herbal remedies and amateur doctors.
Kidwai Ahmad, from Sadullahpur village in Uttar Pradesh, a huge northern state, said the situation is "disastrous" with people dying all around his neighbourhood.
"There is so much poverty all around that people can't even afford decent cremations. They often tie big stones to the bodies and throw them in the river," he told AFP news agency by phone.
"Others don't even bother with that and just throw the bodies in as they are. It has become common practice here," he added.
"Some are just burying their dead in shallow graves and not even waiting to see if crows or dogs feed on them."
In the past month no medical team has visited the village.
The sick are staying at home taking "herbal concoctions", Ahmad said. Clinics, if people can travel to them, are low on beds, medicines and oxygen.
"People have been left to die," he added. "This is the India which is hidden from everyone."
Covid being treated 'like a regular viral infection'
More than 100 corpses that have washed up on the banks of the river Ganges in recent days suggest the situation is equally dire elsewhere in the country.
In the district of Unnao, also in Uttar Pradesh, dozens of people have been buried in shallow sandy graves by the river.
Locals say there is not enough wood for funeral pyres meaning they are forced to leave bodies in the river, but officials dispute there is a shortage.
The Uttar Pradesh government also insists it has a "relentless and aggressive campaign to trace, test and treat Covid patients".
But Vinod Pandey, 45, a government official recovering from Covid in Bhadohi district, said the local health infrastructure was "a shambles".
He said that while his village had only seen two or three deaths, in a neighbouring settlement a dozen had perished and "everyone in the village seems to be unwell".
Ajay Singh Yadav, 40, said that in his village at least a dozen people had died but Covid was being treated "like a regular viral infection".
Yadav blamed the spread on recent local council elections in Uttar Pradesh when millions of people were called upon to vote even as cases surged.
"Even if you didn't want to step out of your home, you couldn’t avoid candidates knocking at your door," he said.
Many have blamed politicians for allowing super-spreader events such as mass gatherings to take place.
Religious leaders and hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus descended on the banks of the Ganges River in the northern Indian city of Haridwar in March for a major Kumbh festival. They believe that a dip in holy water will wash away their sins and prevent rebirth. One prominent Hindu religious leader died of Covid-19 shortly after.
Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah as well as opposition politicians took part in mass election rallies in five populous states with with tens of thousands of supporters not wearing masks or social distancing.