Hospitals are still overwhelmed by coronavirus patients and crematoriums have run out of space. The images of cadavers floating in the River Ganga haunt the entire nation.
NEW DELHI — With the surge in Covid-19 cases in parts of India, bodies are piling on the banks of Ganga – a river considered sacred by the Hindus – and its tributaries.
On Tuesday, residents discovered swollen, half-burnt bodies by the river in Buxar, an ancient district in the East Indian state of Bihar. In the upstream of the river, in one of India’s worst-hit states, Uttar Pradesh, bodies are being incinerated along the winding banks of the national river that passes through a dozen Indian states covering a distance of 2500 kilometer from the Himalayas in the north to Bay of Bengal in the east.
More than 60 percent of the river passes through three coronavirus-hit states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal – with blazing wooden pyres replacing the countless lamps that are lit to pacify the mighty river, which is considered to be a goddess by the Hindus.
Cleaning the holy river was one of the first and central projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was launched soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in 2014. The government “approved” about $3 billion for “conservation and rejuvenation” of the river.
In 2021, the river in Kanpur, a district in Uttar Pradesh, is at the risk of housing “hundreds of thousands of dead bodies” during monsoon, reports one of India’s main Hindi language newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar.
The paper reported the pyres in Uttar Pradesh is “falling short” of wood and the families are “forced” to relinquish Hindu customs to cremate their loved ones and rather burying “a corpse at every other step” at a “depth of three feet” escalating the risk of cadavers being swept away by rain to the river.
About 450 kilometers downstream of Kanpur – at Buxar – officially 71 decomposed bodies were found, claimed the district administration, while the unofficial count was in the hundreds. The chief administrator Aman Samir said, in neighbouring Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh some people were found “throwing the bodies into the river.”
Matiur Rahman, an editor of a Hindi language newspaper, Kalam Lok, is located in Buxar. He offered a counter to the administrator.
The bodies near Muktidham, the crematorium in Buxar, are piling as villagers got “scared.”
“The administration introduced a directive, being pressurized by media, to provide detailed reports about the cause of someone’s death. This is a difficult task for the villagers,” said Rahman. Burning up a body takes time and the villagers are afraid of being caught as in most cases they do not have proper certificates with causes mentioned.
“So they let the bodies flow in the river only to surface half a kilometer downstream at Buxar,” Rahman told TRT World.
After touching the base of about 11,000 daily cases and a rolling daily death average of less than 100 in mid-February, India accounted for “46 percent of global cases and 25% of global deaths”, said the World Health Organisation. Quoting Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the global medical journal Lancet estimated one million deaths from Covid-19 by August 01.
Many of that million possibly are lying unattended in the river in Kanpur or Buxar as the country struggles to lower the rate of infections. Reports suggest 533 of the country’s 700-plus districts are now reporting a test positivity rate of more than 10 percent, the government acknowledged on Tuesday.
Every other day, passing by the Bhainsakund cremation site, near Gomti river, a tributary of Ganga, a collage of images distract Tarun Kulbhaskar.
More so, after a wall of blue tin sheets is erected to make the crematorium in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, vanish from sight.
“The pyres disappeared but the flames are visible,” said Kulbhaskar, a 26-year-old real estate developer.
The wall was erected after visuals of pyre-flames by the Gomti went viral on social media.
A London-based teacher-educator of Lucknow Shweta Bisht told TRT World that the wall reminds him of an alcoholics’ murder of his wife in an Edgar Allan Poe story, the Black Cat. “The protagonist built a wall around the body to conceal it like the Lucknow municipality,” Bisht said.
Uttar Pradesh with 15742 deaths is not among the top states as far as the rate of infections or deaths is concerned. The state however is massively underreporting cases, experts say.
“The queues outside the crematoriums can empirically establish the depth of the crisis,” said a city-based doctor.
Kulbhaskar, who lost four of his family members including his 79-year-old father, said that he had to wait for six hours in the Bhainskund to cremate his father.
“There are two types of the pyre, the electric and the wooden ones. For the former, one will have to wait for nearly a day, and less for the wooden ones,” Kulbhaskar told TRT World. His father’s oxygen level dropped, despite having a negative test report. “It was difficult to get a bed with oxygen and by the time we got one it was late.” While the oxygen cylinders are sold at a price many times of its actual price, the non-governmental ambulance services are overcharging too. Kulbhaskar paid Rs 8000 ($110) for his father’s journey to the crematorium, a two-kilometer distance.
In the next 100 hours, Kulbhaskar’s maternal aunt, aunt’s husband, and the husband’s brother passed away. “There was no one to cremate them and reportedly outsiders were trying to acquire the property (a usual illegal practice in Lucknow) when the police intervened, locked the house, and cremated them.”
In a week’s time, a part of Kulbhaskar’s family was wiped out, but he did not blame the local government headed by Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu nationalist leader of BJP.
“The hospital beds are full. No government can handle this catastrophe,” said Kulbhaskar.
Others are less charitable.
“If I had a gun with me, I would have shot them,” said Rama Mishra, a professional doctor of Prayagraj in southern Uttar Pradesh. She gave a photographic description of how her husband, Dr. Jagdish Kumar Misra, 85, a doctor for five decades in Swarup Rani Nehru hospital in Prayagraj was “killed” after his oxygen level dropped. Both of them were admitted to the hospital, where they taught for many decades.
“Initially they gave him an injection and its brand was not disclosed to us. The staff did not attend my husband properly and other patients too despite knowing that we are in critical condition,” she said. A couple of days after admission as Dr. Mishra’s oxygen level dipped, he started coughing blood.
“I asked the doctors to put him on a ventilator but the main pieces of equipment (laryngoscope and endotracheal tube) to ventilate the patient was not available and even the intensive care unit had rusted tubes, without suction apparatus, and no anesthetist. He died precisely because of lack of oxygen, a reason for many deaths,” Dr. Mishra told TRT World. The hospital authority denied the allegations.
BJP complaining against its government
The worsening Uttar Pradesh situation pushed a central minister of BJP to complain about all facets of health care in Uttar Pradesh’ – a state governed by the BJP – from the unavailability of basic medical equipment or black marketing of oxygen to the health administration’s reluctance to admit patients against its own government in Uttar Pradesh.
“Even the senior medical officers of Bareilly (district) do not take calls escalating more problems for the patients,” Gangwar noted in his letter.
However, the government's plan to regulate oxygen supply is “not helping”, said a Lucknow-based activist, Azra Mobin.
“Hospitals are refusing admission and many are purchasing oxygen cylinders to treat patients at home while the government directs the cylinders to the hospitals. It is an attempt to consciously harass people,” 35-year-old Mobin told TRT World. She argues that the government refused to admit the impending tragedy.
“The cases dipped since October and the government had a clear six-month time which it spent on planning and campaigning for a state election in West Bengal, leaving the people to die on streets,” said Azra, who cremated half a dozen Hindus and described the experience as “surreal.”
“People I do not know call me to cremate their loved ones. It is so painful and sad,” said Azra. A spokesperson of the Uttar Pradesh government agreed to talk about the allegations but did not finally respond.
Besides the elections, the international community and the press are appalled by Modi’s ascent to the month-long Hindu religious festival Kumbh Mela, attended by millions. Only after a few thousands were infected, Modi declared it “symbolic”, nearly three weeks after the congregation started.
Specter looms large on rural India
As the government indicates that rural India is hit by a massive wave, unlike in 2020, the health workers on the ground indicated that cases are being reported by the hour.
“In the last one month about 124 cases have been reported from Kaneili block’s health center in Kaushambi district (in south Uttar Pradesh) and adjacent Sirathu reported about 250 cases,” said a senior health activist of the district. India has over 6000 administrative blocks for the purpose of rural management.
“In most of the villages, people are suffering from common cold and cough, and neither they have testing facilities nor they have any intention to get tested as it may lead to isolation in the village,” said the health activist on condition of anonymity. Dr. Kaninika Mitra, a health specialist with UNICEF, told TRT World, “it is mandatory now for the government and the media at the state and national level to run proper awareness campaigns to avoid being hit by a tsunami, if we are not already.”
The fear of social ostracisation is “getting bigger”, said Gautam Mudi, an activist of a socio-cultural group Bangla Sanskriti Manch (BSM).
“A person has passed away in my hamlet and no one was keen to cremate him fearing Covid contraction though we do not know if he was infected,” he said. Lokpara – a village deep inside south Bengal’s Birbhum district – is witnessing regular deaths.
“There is no testing, no identification, and no isolation and the queues in big rural crematoriums are growing,” said Gautam as he was cremating an 86 years old woman, Bhagyawati Das.
The pyre of Bhagyawati – ‘a lucky woman’ in Bengali – was lit on Tuesday night in a makeshift crematorium by Mayurakshi, a turbulent eastern river, connected to Ganga.
“We could not arrange oxygen as she passed away in front of us,” said Gautam.