Book Excerpt: 'Ganga Became An Easy Dumping Ground For the Dead'

Authored by Rajeev Mishra & Puskal Upadhyay, the book is an insider’s account of India's Clean Ganga Mission

7 min read
Hindi Female

(This excerpt has been taken with permission from 'Ganga: Re-Imagining, Rejuvenating, Re-Connecting' by Rajiv Ranjan Mishra and Pushkal Upadhyay, published by Rupa Publications India. Subheads in the passage below have been added by The Quint.)


As the number of bodies swelled and multiplied because of the COVID-19 pandemic, overwhelming district administrations and stretching the functional limits of crematoria and burning ghats of UP and Bihar, the Ganga became an easy dumping ground for the dead.


I was recuperating from a severe COVID-19 attack in the Gurugram-based Medanta, a super-speciality hospital when I heard about the unclaimed, half-burnt and swollen corpses floating in the holy Ganga in early May. Television channels, magazines, newspapers and social media sites were awash with macabre images and stories of bodies being dumped unceremoniously into the river.

It was a traumatic and heart-breaking experience for me. As the Director General of the NMCG, my job is to be the custodian of the health of the Ganga, to rejuvenate its flow, ensure its return to its pristine purity and to ensure the same for its tributaries after years of neglect. Five years of intense work to save the river seemed to be coming undone in a matter of days.

'Like The Holy River Itself, I was the Victim of an Unknown Virus'

Like the holy river itself, I was the victim of an unknown virus, an unprecedented epidemic that had snowballed into a national crisis. I was now being asked to take responsibility for the rejuvenation of a river that had been further polluted and defiled by the breakdown in health services and the inability of the local bodies to manage the crisis.

Poor management of funeral services, miscreants taking advantage of the situation to dump bodies into the river instead of cremating them, and adverse publicity from the media only added to our discomfort and helplessness.

Adding to our woes was the fact that the NMCG has no direct power or authority to punish miscreants or to initiate action against those disposing of the dead in the river or burying them on the riverbanks. Our power lay in giving directives, but we are dependent on the state authorities to maintain law and order.

On Challenges and Struggles

In religious congregations as well, our job is to ensure the health and safety of the river. Even during the recent Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, it was not the river that had led to any health hazard. In fact, the water quality in Haridwar was of the highest level, i.e., Class-A.

Floating corpses or the dead being buried on the banks are not an unusual spectacle for those living in close quarters near the river. After all, poverty, along with the inherent belief in the curative power and religious significance of the river, propels many. Burying the dead on the banks is also a tradition and religious practice among some communities in Uttar Pradesh, especially in certain months of the year when cremation is disallowed. This was an argument that even the Allahabad High Court used in a recent case.

However, the swelling numbers and the macabre images accentuated the enormity of the crisis. This proved to be a major challenge for NMCG officials. It was during my stay at the hospital that I realized the urgency of the matter.


After much pleading and persuasion, the doctors agreed to discharge me on 9 May 2021 at 9.30 p.m. I was still reeling under the after-effects of the pandemic. Through the powers granted under the Contravention of the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 2016, I issued a direction on May 11 to dispose of the bodies of suspected Covid victims according to the Government of India guidelines on immediate management of COVID-19 dead bodies, and ensured strict vigilance along the length of the river.

District magistrates presented voluminous action reports of their work, including a 34-page report by the district magistrate of Ballia, UP. I also realized that mere use of force was not going to do the trick due to the ignorance of the rural populace about COVID-19 cremation protocol and no access to oximeters and testing facilities.

Moreover, poverty-stricken people who had used up all their money on doctor’s fees and medicines to fight COVID-19 were in no position to pay the enhanced cremation charges, nearly trebled within days. I authorized the district authorities to use the funds from the District Ganga Committee to fund dignified cremations in case needed.

This also triggered action by the state to support such cases with financial help. And on 11 May, I issued a direction and virtually contacted the district magistrates and senior officials of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and a follow-up meeting on 15 May along with Shri.

On Gathering Data and Information

Pankaj Kumar, Secretary of Ministry with the senior officials of UP and Bihar to put an immediate stop to the disposal of bodies in the river and to check probable contamination of water quality of the river water and sewage.

I stressed on establishing a proper mechanism to ensure regular and verifiable information on the issue and more frequent monitoring by CPCB. It emerged that the water quality was being monitored and analysed in 11 stations in 27 districts of UP every 10 days, and CPCB ruled out the survival of the virus in the drinking water of these states because of chlorination and other disinfectant measures.

Water quality monitoring data did not show much variation in terms of biological parameters, even with the disposal of COVID-19 Ganga bodies into the river.

All doubts were set to rest with a World Health Organisation (WHO) study, which categorically stated that the virus does not spread through water and therefore could not even infect the sewage system. This information was a godsend.

All our efforts at cleaning and rejuvenating the Ganga had not gone to waste. Yet, to be doubly sure, the NMCG appointed the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, to carry out an objective study and create a database to identify possible contamination of the river with SARS-Cov-2 virus (COVID-19) due to the disposal of bodies in the river and its tributaries.

The scope of the study included two or three rounds of sampling near the burial sites of Kannauj, Unnao, Kanpur, Prayagraj and Ghazipur district in UP, Buxar and Saran district in Bihar, barrages/dams in the stretch from Kannuaj (UP) to Farraka (West Bengal) and other hotspots where bodies were found floating or had accumulated. We also asked an agency to conduct bioremediation within a radius of 3 to 4 km in many of these hotspots.

The Problem Was Exaggerated by the Media

After reading the reports of various district magistrates and panchayat committees, I realized that the number of bodies dumped into the river was no more than 300 (definitely not the 1,000 plus reported by a section of the media). The problem, moreover, was confined only to UP (between Kannauj and Ballia), and the bodies found in Bihar were those floating from UP.

Today, the UP government has deployed the State Disaster Response Force and Provincial Armed Constabulary along the river and water bodies and has also alerted panchayats and urban local bodies that no such dumping occurs hereafter.

The state government has also launched a massive drive to dissuade people from such actions, where the municipal corporations will bear the cost of cremations and funerals with a maximum amount of 5,000 per cremation.

Similar provisions were also made in rural areas. As we return to normal, it is time to take a critical and radical look at some of our traditions and behaviours if we are to sustain and rejuvenate the physical form of the Ganges.


What the River Wants from Her Devotees

Burdened by the sins of solving a Wicked Problem those who bathe in her, she, too, needs some kind of commitment from her devotees so that such incidents are never repeated.

The ancient scriptures mention 13 practices we should avoid while bathing in the river. The time has come to follow those practices in letter and spirit.

These prohibited human actions include defecation, gargling, throwing of used floral offerings, rubbing of filth, flowing bodies (human or animal), frolicking, acceptance of donations, obscenity, considering other shrines to be superior, praising other shrines, discarding garments, bathing and making noise. (Consortium, Ganga River Basin Management Plan 2015)

गंगां पुण्यजलां प्राप्य त्रयोदश विवर्जयेत्। शौचमाचमनं सवंफ निर्माल्यं मलघर्षणम्। गाध्संवाहनं व्रफीड़ां प्रतिग्रहमयोरतिम्। अन्यतीर्थरतिचैवः अन्यतीर्थ प्रशंसनम्। वस्त्रात्यागामथाघातं सन्तारंच विशेषत:


The Complexities of Rejuvenating Ganga

We faced a problem which did not have anything to do with the programme or the NMCG. We had no option but to respond because even the normal things for which not even an eyebrow will be raised otherwise become a major concern the moment it gets connected to Ganga, even indirectly. Such is the impact of the river in public imagination.

The challenge to respond to such issues is daunting, and many a time, we think of extricating ourselves. But the sense of a fiduciary responsibility towards the river and to the people keeps us going. The challenges will not cease to come, nor will our resolve to respond to them.

Ganga rejuvenation is far more complex than it sounds. No wonder it took a Bhagiratha to bring Ganga to this earth, and it will take no less an effort again to bring it back to its pristine state as is the national expectation. The country believes in the idea of the Ganga, revers it as a goddess and loves it as a mother.

This is the epitome of astha (belief). To rejuvenate the Ganga and return its lost glory, we need to get reminded of our kartavya (duties) towards it and transform our astha into kartavya.

Only then will this effort be successful. In this age, there cannot be a single Bhagiratha. Each one of us will have to believe and turn into a Bhagiratha. Only then will the wickedness of this problem be tamed.

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Topics:  Namami Gange   Ganga   Namami Gange Project 

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