On 10 May, dozens of dead bodies, suspected to have died from COVID-19, were seen floating in the Ganga at a 500-metre radius around a ghat—a flight of steps leading down to a river bank—in the Chausa village of Bihar’s Buxar district. Residents of the village saw the bodies in the morning and informed the local authorities, who then rushed to the spot. KK Upadhyay, the sub-divisional officer of Buxar, told me that the bodies were bloated and decomposing, and that they “seem to have been dumped three–four days ago.” Upadhyay added, “I think it was dumped at other places and since the river turns at Chausa ghat, the bodies started piling here.” However, several Chausa residents believed the bodies were thrown at the ghat itself.
The dead bodies were recovered next to the Chausa ghat, where cremations of persons who died of causes other than COVID-19 are conducted. Buxar lies on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the Ganga runs along the border before entering Bihar. The district has just one designated ghat for cremation of COVID-19 casualties, in the Charitravan locality. “Apart from Charitravan ghat, we suggest families of COVID-19 deceased to go to Varanasi ghat for cremation,” Upadhyay told me. The Chausa ghat is situated adjacent to the UP-Bihar border, while the Charitravan ghat is located around ten kilometres away. The Varanasi ghat, in Uttar Pradesh, is over a hundred kilometres away from Chausa. According to residents of Chausa, families of individuals who died of COVID-19 have been bringing their kin to the Chausa ghat for cremation due to pressure from the Charitravan ghat.
Asha Devi, the mukhiya—who presides over a gram panchayat—of Chausa, told me, “There is a scarcity of wood for the pyre so many people bring dead bodies here and after performing mukhagni, they throw bodies in the river.” (The mukhagni is a funeral ritual in which a son places the fire over his father’s face.) A local reporter who asked not to be identified told me that he had heard the same accounts from two residents of the village who stay at the Chausa ghat day and night. Deen Dayal Pandey is a priest who presides over Hindu rituals at the ghat, and Anjoriya Devi is the wife of the man who conducts the cremations at the body.
According to the local reporter, Pandey and Anjoriya both said that “the dead bodies didn't come flowing from other areas but were thrown here only.” Anjoriya has also told the media that bodies were regularly dumped into the Ganga at the Chausa ghat because the waiting period for cremations and the cost of wood for the pyre had increased drastically. “Anjoria Devi told me that she had been working at this ghat for 25 years but never seen so many dead bodies coming daily,” the local reporter said. He added that according to Anjoriya, “Earlier two–three dead bodies used to come at the ghat, but now on an average, daily 20 bodies are coming here.”
These accounts corroborate those given by other Chausa residents to the media after the dead bodies were discovered. Kalicharan Singh, a resident of Chausa, told The Tribune, “Even as the district administration has been claiming that these bodies have come from adjoining UP districts of Varanasi and Ghazipur with the flow of water in the river, still a few of the bodies were seen tied with bamboos, which indicate that people have come here and abandoned the bodies for fear COVID-19 infections.” Singh added, “Even the charges of cremation, which used to be between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 6,000 in normal times, have now gone up manifold, as they are now charging Rs. 16,000 to Rs. 20,000. This may also be the reason for people to abandon their dead bodies.”