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Pandemic, Poverty, Rituals, Rumours: Why Ganga Flooded With Bodies

Ground report from a village bordering UP-Bihar shows how COVID-19 led to a flood of bodies in and along the Ganga.

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A boat with three policemen. A loudspeaker piercing through the eeriness at Gahmar village, located at the border of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And piles of bodies, untraced and unnamed, buried along the riverbank across Narayan Ghat - one of the cremation sites in Gahmar.

Pandemic, Poverty, Rituals, Rumours: Why Ganga Flooded With Bodies
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)
Pandemic, Poverty, Rituals, Rumours: Why Ganga Flooded With Bodies

“Floating dead bodies into River Ganga is strictly prohibited. We request everyone to either cremate the bodies or bury them along the banks. Strict punishment will be given to those found floating bodies into the river,” one of the policemen announced from the boat.

Bhupender Upadhyay, who has been working as a priest at Narayan Ghat for decades said, “There are some people who, when dead, cannot be cremated. That has been the ritual for centuries. When saints or young unmarried people die, their bodies are always floated into the river. But now after the UP administration has set up vigil teams at the ghats, we are also discouraging people from floating the bodies and urging them to cremate the dead. If they don’t have money for funeral wood, we are providing the wood for free.”

The vigil teams have been stationed after terror and panic spread across the village as heaps of bodies came afloat in Ganga. Ghyansham, a boat man at Narayan Ghat says, “We keep seeing dead bodies floating up often but usually they are one or two in numbers. This time, the numbers were huge. Wherever we looked, there were bodies. Dogs and crows were gnawing on them. The bodies must have come from Bihar, they can’t belong to Uttar Pradesh.”

As Bhupender nodded in agreement with Ghyansham and settled on assuming the bodies belonged to a neighbouring village from Bihar, some others in the crematorium sighed how people in the village “were dropping dead like flies, with symptoms of fever and flu.”

Pandemic, Poverty, Rituals, Rumours: Why Ganga Flooded With Bodies

The bodies which had come afloat along the banks have been buried with sand by the river banks by the Gahmar administration. The government has been constantly saying that there is no way to ascertain the number of bodies that were infected with COVID-19 but most of them have been buried along the banks without following the pandemic protocols.

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Pandemic Increased Numbers, Poverty Deepened Woes

Horrific images of bodies piled up along river banks in Gahmar and several other places in rural Uttar Pradesh have been flooding our timelines since the second week of May. Akhandi Pratap, a local journalist in Gahmar, notes the reasons for the increased number of bodies along the banks are multi-fold but primarily, it is pandemic and poverty.

“There is no doubt that the number of people dying has increased recently, due to the pandemic. But, one of the main reasons why many people are choosing to float the bodies into Ganga is the surge in cost of funeral wood and cremation procedures. The way the Pandits have increased their charges for cremating the dead, many people are left with no choice but to float the bodies of their loved ones.” 
Akhandi Pratap, Local Journalist

Pratap says there has been such huge queues at the crematoriums that people who are scared that their relative passed away due to COVID (most of those who died in Gahmar were not tested, as per locals), were reluctant to hold onto the bodies and would prefer floating them into the river.

“Moreover, there were rumours that the smoke that comes out of funeral pyres spread COVID-19 infection, so people in villages have been scared to cremate the bodies.”
Akhandi Pratap

Other locals with whom The Quint spoke said there were several rumours and unverified WhatsApp forwards doing the rounds that pushed several people in the villages of eastern UP to float the bodies of those who died with “flu-like symptoms.”

Akhandi Pratap says families who have floated the bodies into the river are now extremely scared to openly admit to it because the administration has warned of strict actions.

After a surge in reports, Jal Shakti Ministry asked Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on 16 May, to prevent the dumping of bodies in the holy river and its tributaries.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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