Residents of Bihar’s Chausa village say bodies floating in Ganga were dumped there itself

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 in the Chausa village of Bihar’s Buxar district. ANI Photo

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.”

But Upadhyay maintained that the deceased individuals came from Uttar Pradesh, where he believed they had been dumped into the Ganga and subsequently flowed downstream to Buxar. He told the media, “We need to investigate where they are from, which town in UP—Bahraich or Varanasi or Allahabad.” Other officials from the district have repeated the same official position. Ashok Kumar, the block-development officer of Chausa, told the media, “None of the deceased happens to be a resident of the district.” Aman Samir, the district magistrate of Buxar, similarly told The Tribune, “They have found that the bodies have reached the district with the flow of water in the river.”

The total number of bodies found in the Ganga also remains unclear at the moment. While some of the locals estimated that the total number of bodies could have been as high as 100, the district magistrate Samir said, “Till now we have found 48 bodies and made all the arrangements for their respectful disposal.” The district administration had initially decided to bury all the dead bodies without conducting post-mortem examinations. “Since the bodies have decomposed to some extent, it is not possible to perform post-mortem,” Upadhyay told me on 10 May. “We will give PPE to those workers who will help in recovering and burying the bodies.”

But the administration appears to have changed its decision. On the morning of 11 May, Upadhyay wrote to me, “The post-mortem was conducted. After the post-mortem, they were buried.” He added that he had no information about the findings of the post-mortem. “Civil surgeon will tell about postmortem report,” Upadhyay said. But the civil surgeon of Buxar district, Dr Jitendra Nath, told me, “We have not received the post-mortem reports from doctors.” Nath added, “We have collected biological materials to determine DNA before burying the bodies.”

Many residents feared that it was too late to address some of the dangers posed by the dumping of the bodies, including the spread of the coronavirus from the public use of the river water. Residents also recounted the sight of seeing stray dogs and birds consume the dead bodies, which are feared to be infected with COVID-19. “Stray dogs are devouring these bodies which could be of COVID-19 victims,” Ashwini Varma, a social activist and local lawyer, told The Hindu. “It will spread the virus as well.”

The claims by the residents of Chausa about the dead bodies having been dumped at the village ghat itself are supported by the number of deaths reported at the village level across the state. These  cases do not find its place in official data of COVID-19 deaths because these casualties are often not tested for the virus and no official follow-ups are made. Media reports indicate huge discrepancies between the official COVID-19 deaths in the district and the number of deaths treated as such.

For instance, on 9 May, the Bihar health department released a health bulletin stating that Buxar had reported a total of 26 deaths ill then. But a report by the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar published that same day noted that Buxar had seen 78 deaths—three times the figure reported by the state government.

Naveen Kumar, a senior Buxar-based journalist, also told me that the actual data of COVID-19 casualties in Buxar is much more than the figures reported by the government.“Earlier, before COVID-19 period, around 45 to 50 dead bodies used to come to the Charitravan ghat,” Kumar said.“But in the last eight–ten days, more than 200 bodies are coming daily. But these bodies do not find a place in official data.”