“We were burning our loved ones by the river, hoping ‘Narmada Maiya’ will set them free. Little did we know our faith will subsequently eat up our fish,” said Ramdas Lauvanshi, a resident of Banapura village in Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh.
The fish in the river by the crematoriums have been found dead, allegedly poisoned by half-burnt bodies set adrift.
The crematoriums in Hoshangabad district’s Seoni Malwa block have been shut since Tuesday, 18 May, night, after the incident came to light.
‘Never Seen So Many Pyres’
Villagers complained that fish were poisoned by the half-burnt bodies and the medical waste thrown alongside.
“We have never in our life seen pyres burning in such huge numbers. Every evening the sky gets clouded with smoke, and all we can see are grieving kin of those who took their last breath,” said Lauvanshi.
There are about 15-20 crematoriums by the riverbanks where the villagers set funeral pyres of their dearest.
“The number of bodies turning up at ghats has spiked so much that ‘Narmada Maiya’ can no longer bear the load,” he said.
At least 8-10 bodies show up every day at the Narmada banks in the block.
Most of the bodies are those of coronavirus-inflicted patients, who failed to get treatment due to lack of amenities.
“We live in villages. Most of us do not even know that we have been inflicted with corona. We do not have wheels to reach the hospitals or a dedicated health centre. They are far away. We bear the pain and when one of us passes away, we cremate them at one of our ghats, hoping ‘Narmada Maiya’ will set them free,” said Malti Markam from Chautala village.
“Only a few corona-inflicted bodies come from the community health centres with PPE kit-clad civic body staffers,” she said.
“The kin of the deceased bring the rest of them, unprotected. Most of them are not privileged enough to buy a stack of wood to burn the pyres. They manage with whatever they get their hands on. There are no staff at the crematoriums who can reignite the fire after they head home, leaving the bodies half-burnt,” she said.
Locals claim they have witnessed more than 250 pyres burning at the ghats in one month, 80% of which are deaths due to COVIDd-19. The government records, however, show roughly one death in five days.
Markam said the rainfall in the past few days have set off many pyres as well.
In Bhiladiya village of Seoni Malwa, 15-20 bodies were cremated every day till April end. The numbers have declined in the second week of May.
A total of 750 bodies have been burnt till first week of May in 158 villages of 95 Panchayats, said the crematorium secretaries. At least 75% were undetected COVID bodies, they added.
Panchayat Puts a Stop on Cremations
After the complaints from the villagers, the Seoni Malwa Janpad Panchayat has put a temporary stop to cremation of bodies by the riverbanks.
The villagers have said that both sides of the river are strewn with various items used for performing last rites.
That, too, has a major contribution in polluting the river, they said.
The chief executive officer of Janpad Panchayat, Durgesh Kumar Bhoomarkar said, nobody is to be cremated until next order at all 15 ghats by Narmada river, including the most populated ghats like Aanvali, Bhiladiya Khurd, Babari, and Papan.
An announcement was made in the villages to inform them of the same.
The Panchayat has put up wired fences on the way to the ghats and a signboard that says: ‘Muktidham Bandh Hai (crematorium is closed)’.
While the theory of half-burnt bodies poisoning the fish has taken its course, a section of villagers have a different belief.
They have faith in the sanctity of the river.
An elderly man from the village, Mevaram Kuchbandiya, said, “I have lived long enough to know fish did not die due to the bodies. There are at least 150 banks where last rites are performed and we have never experienced such a phenomenon.”
Kuchbandiya claimed to have spotted many fishermen in the area bringing batteries and motors to the river to electrocute the fish.
He said, “These greedy fishermen kill our fish using those batteries so that they can earn more.”
“The lockdown has harmed everybody’s business and now all of them want to earn more and save enough to run their household if restrictions become stricter,” sighed Kuchbandiya.
Another villager Dayaram Sadh said the medical waste burnt along with the bodies may have killed the fish in the river.
“Villagers are not educated enough to dispose the medical waste separately. They destroy them in fire with the bodies. This releases all the chemicals into the river, killing the fish,” said Sadh.
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