India confirms hundreds of bodies found in Ganges are Covid-19 victims

Hundreds of bodies have been found washed up on the banks or buried in shallow graves along the Ganges river, such as here in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, 15 May 2021.
Hundreds of bodies have been found washed up on the banks or buried in shallow graves along the Ganges river, such as here in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, 15 May 2021. AP - Rajesh Kumar Singh

A senior Indian official from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh has confirmed that hundreds of bodies washing up on the banks of the Ganges river include coronavirus victims, saying poverty and fear of the disease could be behind the practice.


"The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to Covid-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of as per proper rituals," a senior state official said in a 14 May letter seen by Reuters.

Last week, authorities in neighbourhing Bihar state's Buxar district said at least 70 bodies of suspected Covid-19 victims washed up on the banks of the Ganges had come from Uttar Pradesh. Many more have surfaced in the last few days.

Similar scenes were reported in the Ghaziabad, Kanpur, Unnao, Ghazipur, Kannauj and Ballia regions – reported to be worst-affected by the pandemic.

Deep economic distress and the unrelenting wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths have forced many families to dump the bodies of their loved ones in rivers, according to local reports. 

“Many villagers who are poor and have not heard of the effects of Covid are dumping bodies in the holy Ganges River instead of cremation," Pradeep Kumar a villager from Unnao told RFI. "There is also a shortage of wood for cremation – and it is expensive."

Lilavati, a labourer in Bihar state said locals could not cope with the hike in prices. "A funeral pyre normally costs about 1,000 rupees (11 euros). Now caretakers are taking five times that amount,” she told RFI.

Her family decided that the body of her husband, who died after suffering from high fever, a nagging cough and breathlessness – all symptoms of Covid-19 – would be buried in the sand near the river on Friday. Lilavati said many villagers in nearby rural communities were doing the same.

'More than 2,000 bodies'

According to one media report by a local Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, more than 900 dead bodies had been buried along the river in Unnao alone last week.

It pegged the numbers to be 350 in Kannauj, 400 in Kanpur, and 280 in Ghazipur, even as it reported that such deaths have been shooting up in different districts of central and eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Authorities in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state of over 240 million people, has ordered its home department to deploy the State Disaster Response Force and wings of the provincial armed constabulary for patrolling all the rivers to prevent the dumping of bodies.

India’s home ministry is investigating claims by various media that the count could be more than 2,000 bodies.

​​​​​“We have been discovering a spate of bodies along the banks and sometimes floating in the river. This is an unusually high number. Most of the families living in villages are impoverished and do not have the means to do otherwise,” Unnao’s District Magistrate Ravindra Kumar told RFI.

The National Human Rights Commission has called for a special law to uphold the dignity of the dead.

Scientists have warned of the serious risks of dumping bodies in the Ganges or its tributaries, which are key sources of drinking water for many villages, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis.

India on Sunday recorded 311,170 new cases of Covid-19, along with 4,077 deaths. The total cases have now mounted to over 24.6 million with the total death toll at over 270,000, accounting for one in three of the reported deaths from coronavirus around the world.

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