Why bodies of India’s COVID-19 victims are being dumped in the Ganges River

Krishna N. DasAAP
VideoHealth experts say most COVID-19 deaths in Bihar and India's rural areas.

Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a State Government letter seen by Reuters says.

It is the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice, which it said may stem from poverty and fear of the disease in remote areas.

Images of corpses drifting down the Ganges river, which is considered holy in Hinduism, have shocked the country, reeling under the world’s worst surge in COVID-19 cases.

Although media reports have linked the increase in the number of bodies found floating in the river and its tributaries in recent days to the pandemic, India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 240 million people, has until now not publicly revealed the cause of the deaths.

“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, Manoj Kumar Singh, said in a letter dated May 14 to district heads that was reviewed by Reuters.

This frame grab from video provided by KK Productions shows bodies lying along the river in Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh state India, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Scores of dead bodies have been found floating down the Ganges River in eastern India amid a ferocious surge in coronavirus infections in the country, but authorities said Tuesday they haven't been able to determine the cause of death. Health officials working through the night Monday retrieved 71 bodies, officials in Bihar state said. (KK PRODUCTIONS via AP)
Camera IconThis frame grab from video provided by KK Productions shows bodies lying along the river in Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh state India, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Scores of dead bodies have been found floating down the Ganges River in eastern India amid a ferocious surge in coronavirus infections in the country, but authorities said Tuesday they haven't been able to determine the cause of death. Health officials working through the night Monday retrieved 71 bodies, officials in Bihar state said. (KK PRODUCTIONS via AP) Credit: AP

“As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places.”

Singh was not immediately reachable for comment.

The acknowledgement comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday called on officials to strengthen healthcare resources in rural areas and step up surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas after ravaging the cities.

Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil or Pakistan, has been badly hit by India’s dramatic second surge in COVID-19 cases. Health experts say many cases are now going undetected in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, where most of its people live.

Bodies of suspected Covid-19 victims are seen in shallow graves buried in the sand near a cremation ground on the banks of Ganges River in Prayagraj, India, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Camera IconBodies of suspected Covid-19 victims are seen in shallow graves buried in the sand near a cremation ground on the banks of Ganges River in Prayagraj, India, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh) Credit: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Singh in the memo to district heads said a lack of funds to buy materials like firewood for cremation, religious beliefs in some communities, and families abandoning COVID-19 victims for fear of the disease, were among the likely reasons for the surge in body dumpings.

He asked village-level officials to ensure no corpses are thrown into water and said the state government would pay poor families of the dead 5,000 rupees ($68) each to cremate or bury bodies. The state has also asked police to patrol rivers to stop the practice.

India has been officially reporting around 4,000 deaths each day from the disease for nearly two weeks, but health experts say the toll is likely much higher due to poor testing in rural areas and other factors.

A cremation next to the banks of the Ganges river
Camera IconA lack of firewood and fear might explain why some coronavirus victims are dumped in the Ganges Credit: AP

The jump in deaths has in many places led to backlogs at crematoriums and multiplied the cost of last rites.

Uttar Pradesh spokesman Navneet Sehgal on Saturday denied local media reports that as many as 2,000 corpses of potential COVID-19 victims had been recovered from rivers in the state and neighbouring Bihar in recent days.

“We keep recovering 10 to 20 bodies every now and then,” Sehgal told Reuters, adding that some riverside villages did not cremate their dead due to Hindu traditions during some periods of religious significance.

Bihar officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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