On 7 May 2021, local media in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district first reported that there were dozens of dead bodies, suspected to be of COVID-19 victims, floating in the Yamuna River. It was just a few days after results were declared for the panchayat elections in the state, held from 15 to 29 April. In the week following the discovery at Hamirpur, the same news filtered out of district after district in the state—dead bodies were being found buried or floating along the river banks in massive numbers. On 15 May, the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar released a damning ground report on its front page—30 reporters from the paper had covered 27 districts, and found over 2,000 bodies buried or floating in a 1,140 kilometre stretch along the Ganga River.
In almost the entire state, Hindu rituals of death, which usually involve cremations, are conducted by the river ghats, a flight of steps leading down to a river bank. The state has over 30 small and big rivers and the Ganga and the Yamuna are considered the most sacred of them—people believe that cremations on these ghats are the path to salvation for the deceased. The state government has tried to explain away the bodies by saying that as per tradition, certain deaths are buried and not cremated, for instance infant children, unmarried women and snake-bite victims. But locals across the state told me that the administration was hiding possible COVID-19 deaths and that they had never witnessed this scale of burials along the ghats in living memory.
While the searing visuals of overflowing crematoria across the country during the the second wave of COVID-19 refuted the central and state governments’ narrative on the management of the pandemic, the bodies found along Uttar Pradesh’s river banks point to a darker reality. Despite the state government’s boasts of “setting a great example of COVID management” in terms of healthcare and aid to vulnerable populations, hundreds of media reports have highlighted the abysmal lack of healthcare and aid on the ground, including massive under reporting of COVID-19 deaths. The missing numbers of COVID-19 dead, however, do not explain the bodies on the ghats. Those are a combination of poverty, which has deepened over a year into the pandemic, and the panic created by the disease, which has forced families to abandon their dead unceremoniously.
I spoke to villagers across ten villages in seven districts that have reported bodies buried or floating by the river banks of the Ganga. There were two major recurring themes narrated by the locals across the board. First, that cremations had become significantly expensive compared to before the pandemic, and that there was widespread financial insecurity. Consequently, several families just could not afford to cremate their dead anymore. According to a report by the Pew Research Centre in March 2021, the number of people who are poor in India increased by 7.5 crore due to the pandemic. Another report in May 2021, by the Azim Premji University, estimated that 23 crore people had been pushed into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The second theme was that COVID-19 symptoms spread like wildfire across the rural countryside during and after the panchayat elections, and entire villages started falling sick. The prevalence of the disease and the high numbers of sudden deaths in the absence of tests, medicines, beds, oxygen and critical-care facilities led to immense dread. Families that had struggled to get healthcare and lost people were consigning their dead to the river banks in panic. Several villagers also said that due to the massive number of cremations on the ghats, the pyres had spread kilometres inland and people were leaving the bodies “to the care of mother Ganga” as they did not want to wait and were terrified of catching the virus. There was anger and despair over the fact that the dead could not be accorded the Hindu traditions of cremations.