Poverty, panic and panchayat polls led to mass burial of bodies along UP riverbanks

Shallow sand graves on the banks of the Ganga River in Phafamau, on the outskirts of Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj district on 21 May 2021. Several of these bodies are suspected to be of COVID-19 patients. Ritesh Shukla / Reuters
30 May, 2021

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.

Pushkar Pal is a resident of the Thakuraine Kheda village in the state’s Rae Bareli district. He is the district convenor of the Jai Kisan Andolan and contested the zila panchayat election from the Ward 2 of the Bachharawan block. The elections were held in the first phase, on 15 April. Pal said that the economic condition in his village had started deteriorating in the first national lockdown enforced in March 2020. “And this time, it has broken our backs,” he said. “Everything, even daily essentials have become expensive and there is no work anywhere.” He told me that the prices for all materials required for cremations had shot through the roof, even transportation of dead bodies. “Ordinarily, the wood used to cost around Rs 3,000. Now, you are lucky if you get a price of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. After a year of the pandemic, nobody has any savings anymore.” In addition, he said that in his area, the number of deaths were so high that people were not even going to the regular ghats for the cremations and that a new site had come up within the past one month.

Pal said that the situation was at its worst in the second half of April. “People started falling sick everywhere. Since I was contesting elections, I was travelling a lot and meeting people. No one cared about corona then, neither the people nor the government, the government was sleeping.” He said that as the elections progressed, the number of people falling sick increased exponentially. “But there is no government arrangement, no cooperation, no hospital, nothing. Whoever was falling sick, there was no medicine and no care and people just started dying.” He said that as the number of dead increased, the crowds at ghats also increased. “There would be queues for hours and bodies lying everywhere, so many that you didn’t know whose body was which.” He said the crowds at the ghats caused further panic as families did not want to stay and attend the full rituals, which take hours, and risk more people falling sick with a disease that they just could not understand. Pal said that in many cases, families would just consign the bodies to the river for fear of contracting the virus and losing more people.

When I spoke to Pal on 16 May, he told me that, lately, the people in his village had started conducting the cremations in their own fields so that they could rest their dead in peace. “The thinking is that at least there is some wood at home and some dignity to the dead. The government has also cracked down on leaving the dead to the rivers, so people in my village have stopped doing that anymore.”

Pal said that he could not remember when burials would happen in his village barring certain cases. “I am 30 years old, but in my memory, it has never happened. And the elders of the family, the 70–80 years old, even in their memory, no such situation has arisen when they are leaving their dead bodies to Ganga.” He explained, “An infant, a snake-bite victim, sometime even some holy monks would be buried on the banks. But what is happening at this time is against the Hindu custom.”

Pal was scathing in his criticism of the state government and administration. “How will people understand if the government pretends that it’s all good?” He added, “During the elections they said nothing, and then they said you cannot gather in numbers. But then they said that all those who were come for counting of votes and results on 2 May have to get tested and a negative corona report.” He was furious. “More than 2,000 people had to be tested and they all crowded the handful of hospitals trying to get those tests in two days. Does this administration understand anything?” Pal insisted that the death toll in his panchayat alone was in the hundreds.

Every resident I spoke to insisted that the death toll was way higher than the official numbers. Prashant Katiyar, a property dealer, is a resident of the Prayag Nagar Civil Line locality of Unnao. “Whatever they say, the actual numbers are higher.” Katiyar said that the government was deliberately suppressing numbers. “If there are no tests, how will a corona report come?” He added, “You want to know the true toll? Go anywhere in Unnao, stand and see the cremations and ask what the person died of. You will come to know the real extent of the spread.”

Katiyar told me on 16 May that he knew of at least 20 people among his family and friends who had succumbed to COVID-19 symptoms in the past 20 days, and “not a single one of them was tested for corona.” He added, “Do you think their deaths were counted as corona deaths? No.” He said that they all fell sick with fever or cold, stayed ill for two or three days and then died. “The ghats are full, there is always waiting of four to five hours. Now, at least there is wood available, a few days ago there was no wood.”

Katiyar, too, said that cremations had become exorbitant. “They have special packages now, which cost thousands. A poor man who does not even have the money for medical treatment, how will he perform such expensive cremations? So many have not even had work for months now.” He said this was the primary reason why people were burying their dead at the ghats. “There is no place left at Buxar ghat, Mishra ghat, Pariyar ghat, Nanamau ghat and many more such ghats.” He said that at the Mishra ghat, corpses were buried along a kilometre of the river bank and there was no space left, and that the condition was the same at all the other ghats.

Katiyar was angry with the state and central governments as well. “When corona first spread, all countries were correcting their medical systems. And we were banging plates and singing songs. And then they decided to hold panchayat elections.” He accused the government of being all talk with nothing on the ground.  “This government will do everything except for handle the disease. For them, elections are important but the lives of people have no value. This government does not care for the poor and middle class.” He added, “This is against Hindu customs. It is this government that has forced people to do such a thing.”

The violation of Hindu customs was a recurring concern among several villagers. Ranjiv Nishad is a resident of Baksipur Daraganj in Prayagraj. He is the councillor of Ward 75. “There have been 25 deaths in my ward from the middle of the elections till around 10 May. I know because I signed the death certificates.” Ranjiv echoed several others regarding the reasons why people were burying their dead—lack of money. “The economic condition of the people has deteriorated throughout this corona period. There has been no work for a long time and on top of that one has to shell out money for medicines and healthcare. People just don’t have the money to perform the last rites.” He said that most such burials took place at the Phafamau ghat. He said that most of the graves were shallow and revealed themselves the moment there was some rain.

Ranjiv explained that this was because there was fear and panic among the people. “The electric crematorium at Dara Ganj was working 24 hours. Usually there would be about 10 bodies in a day since it’s a big cremation ground, now bodies are being burned in the area surrounding the ghat up to two kilometres.” He said that there was not a single house in his ward that did not have sick people. “People took medicines by themselves and whoever recovered did so on their own. There was so much fear.” He added, “No one wants to spend a minute more than required at the ghats. After finishing everything quickly, they want to leave. And those who did not want to stay even for that time, just let go of their dead in the Ganga.” Ranjiv then said despondently, “Our Hindu traditions are not being followed at all.”

Ranjiv also said that the administration had intervened over the issue of burials. “Now, the municipal corporation has set up a monitoring committee of ten councillors who are coming to the Ganga’s banks and monitoring the cremations.” This committee was set up on 17 May. “The people who are poor and cannot do the rituals, the committee is helping arrange the cremations for them.” By most accounts it seemed that after the visuals of bodies along the riverbanks went viral, the state government had taken steps to prevent such burials and letting go of the bodies in the rivers. I spoke to the villagers from 16 to 20 May and most of them said that by then the burials along the ghats had stopped. In several cases, the police and local administration were helping arrange cremations for those who could not afford it.

But the fact that people were not being able to afford cremations was a constant across the state. In Unnao, I spoke to another resident Ashish Rawat. Rawat contested the zila panchayat election from Ward 48 of the district’s Bichhiya block. He lives in the Unnao Shadar Housing Development. “The Shukla Ganj ghat is 18 kilometres from our house. In our village, whoever dies, we go to the Dajmau ghat which is towards the Kanpur highway. Mishra ghat has the largest number of cremations. And the Pariyar ghat is also quite big. They are all along the Ganga.”

Rawat said that wood had become scarce due to high demand, which had led to a massive increase in prices. “People’s finances have just collapsed. They have no choice but to consign their dead to the river or to bury them.” Rawat also told me that the numbers of dead by the ghats were also an underestimation. “There are bodies buried up to two kilometres around the ghats. It starts from Pariyar ghat all the way to Buxar Ghat.”

Rawat, too, was critical of the decision to hold the elections. “Why did they allow the elections?” he asked. “I was a candidate, I myself met so many people. You have to understand, panchayat elections are a big thing here, there is a lot of enthusiasm. The government said everything was alright and held elections and the people participated in them with full gusto.” Raj Narayan Tiwari of Ichauli village, a four-time head of Rawat’s gram panchayat, and his wife died before the election. He was also a candidate this time. Rawat added, “Badli Kheda was the second village in my district panchayat. The former head of that village also passed away.” All these deaths happened on the 20 and 21 April. Rawat said that based on local news reports, “99 candidates for the post of pradhan died during the elections.”

Rawat corroborated other accounts that there were no tests being conducted in his village. “There is one Saraswati hospital, which is absolutely decrepit.” He narrated the case of 55-year-old Ram Sanjeevan Yadav, who was a three-time member of the zila panchayat and was admitted there. “He fell sick and initially his oxygen level was fine. But then he got serious and they could not find any oxygen and five days later he died, on 20 April.” Rawat said that the deaths in his village started in the middle of the elections. “Our election was in the third phase on 26 April. From 15 April till 10 May, the situation in our village was very frightening, so many people were dying every day.”

The fear of the virus and reports of the floating dead prompted at least one village in Kanpur district to put up a banner outside the village barring cremation processions. Ram Chandra Nishad is a resident of Gurenianpur, which lies along the Yamuna. He told me that there are two paths to the cremation ghat close to their village. “One short route goes through our village and the other longer one goes through the jungle. People are so scared that they think that if the processions come through the village, the disease will spread here too, so they have banned these from coming inside.” Ram Chandra, too, contested and won the election for block development council.

Ram Chandra explained that before the pandemic, the ghat would witness one cremation in a week, but after the elections there have been 15 to 20 cremations every day. “Due to which people got scared,” he said. “We have not had any death in my village, only some fevers which got alright.” He told me that the fear and misinformation was so widespread that residents of his village, which is reliant on fishing for a livelihood, have stopped fishing in the river ever since the reports of the floating dead came up.

Several residents of riverine communities across the districts told me that this had become a common practice—entire villages were shunning the river and fishermen were refusing to fish. Ram Awadh Kewat is a resident of Shehadpur in the Ghazipur district. He used to work as an engineer in a private firm in Jharkhand but he has been home since states started going into lockdown as the second wave of COVID-19 hit. “My house is 20 metres from the Ganga. The river is everything to us, our entire life. But this virus has scared everyone, especially since the bodies turned up.”

Kewat said the panic was more as no one knew where the bodies were coming from or even when they had been dumped in the river. “The administration is now fishing out the bodies but the fishermen are refusing to go fish. They are even scared to go to the riverside.” He explained that a peculiar belief had spread in the villages. He said that the villagers think that the dead bodies in the river are being eaten by the fish, and if they catch the fish and consume them, they will get COVID-19. “There have been ten deaths here in the last seven days,” he told me on 17 May. “Every household has sick people and they are all corona symptoms. There are no tests and even if there are people refuse to disclose.” He said that the Shehadpur ghat used to have around four to five cremations a day and now the number has gone up to 100 a day sometimes.

Harishchandra Bind, a resident of Simri village in the Mirzapur district, echoed Kewat’s narrative. Bind mentioned how the people in his village and surrounding villages had stopped fishing or even tending to their vegetable farms because of the fear of the virus and the stigma attached to it. “No one wants to tell you if they are sick, and the moment they fall sick they stop coming out of their houses,” Bind said. “Soon the rains will arrive, what will happen to all this seasonal produce just lying rotting in the fields?”

The situation seemed particularly dire in Prayagraj. According to Mohit Nishad, a resident of Jhunsi village, the burials were happening not just because people could not afford cremations but also because the number of dead had overwhelmed the cremation sites. Mohit is a journalist for Rashtriya Sahara. He told me that so far most of the news reports about Prayagraj were centred on the burials at the Chathnath ghat, which is in Jhunsi. “Earlier too, sometimes people would bury their dead here but that was very rare. But this time the number of dead is so high that those who did not get space to burn have buried the bodies and the burials continue for kilometres.” Mohit said that the situation was far worse at the Phafamau ghat which is about eight kilometres from Jhunsi. “There have been far more cremations there. The whole ghat was full of bodies, almost up to three to four kilometres. People burnt their dead wherever they could find space and those who could not, buried them.”

Mohit said that because of the sluggish flow of the river here, there have been more burials and only a handful of bodies had been consigned to the river. He explained that this was because the river’s flow increases after the Chathnath ghat and despite that a few bodies were found floating even at Chathnath ghat.

Mohit placed the blame of the second wave in Uttar Pradesh on the panchayat elections, which were held on 15 April in Prayagraj. “The elections helped corona spread,” he said. “People started dying so fast, there were no medicines and no oxygen, and most of the hospitals were just closed. Even the cities had no preparations done.” There are several other ghats in Prayagraj—Dara Ganj, which has an electric crematorium, Rasoolbad, among others—and Mohit said that all of them have been cremating the dead day and night for weeks now. “So many have died that it’s difficult to collate numbers anymore.” Mohit, too, said that after the news reports, people in his village and surrounding villages have taken to burning the dead in the fields itself.

Mohit also mentioned that while the state did nothing to control or counter the virus, the administration intervened when reports of exorbitantly priced cremations went viral on social media. “The administration then set a reasonable limit on the cost of cremations. Since then, there has been no report of over-charging in cremation grounds and ghats.”

The narrative was slightly different in Simri village. Bind had contested the recent elections and he is also a former student leader from the Banaras Hindu University. He told me that the burials in his area had been few but that the cremations themselves were being hurried and half-burnt corpses were being consigned to the river. “My village is on the banks of Ganga,” Bind said. “Usually, whichever villages are on the banks of the Ganga, two or three of them will have the same ghat, which is also used by people from some distance away. Otherwise, people go to the bigger grounds. Here, Bhogaon is the big cremation ground and people come there from 35-40 kms away.” Bind told me that on an average, the Bhogaon ground used to hold seven to eight cremations daily. “But in this second wave, sometimes there have been 150 cremations in a single day. These are in addition to the bodies coming to the smaller ghats like Dwarkapur and Baraini ghat.”

Binds said that usually people would make arthis, or biers, of bamboo and carry the dead as per the tradition but now bodies “are coming in tractors, autos and even ambulances without the arthi.” He added, “Seeing this chills the heart. Nobody accompanies anyone for the arthi anymore and no one comes forward to help, everyone is so scared.” He said that there had been no burials in his area because there was no shortage of wood and people would usually carry wood from their households for the cremations. “The way there was exploitation and over charging in the cities, that did not happen here.” However, he added, “now, families don’t even wait for the cremation to end, they just want to leave. So, half-burnt corpses are being floated in the Ganga.” Bind said that “people don’t want to spend the time it takes to complete the rituals because of the fear. Even if someone has died of a non-corona disease, their bodies are also being mistreated like this.”

Sagar Yadav, who is a resident of Bahirar village in Ghazipur, too, said that the numbers of dead were so high that the ghats were overwhelmed. Sagar’s village is on the border with Ballia district and the Tosh River flows through there and merges with the Ganga 20 kilometres downstream. “People are no longer going to cremation grounds. They are burning their dead wherever they find place next to the river.” He added, “we have the Sidhwakar ghat where cremations used to be few and far in between. But now, there are ten bodies being burnt every day and please note that only two to three villages bring their dead here. That in itself should tell you how high the death toll is.”

Sagar said that in his area, no bodies had been dumped in the rivers or buried alongside. “Unlike the cities, in the villages, people somehow manage to find fuel and wood.” Sagar said that only those who could not afford the rituals would have sent their dead to the Ganga. “People have no work, there is no money. We consider the Ganga sacred, so those who could not cremate their dead properly must have thought that at least mother Ganga will take care of their loved ones.” He added, “Even here, those who cannot go to the banks of the Ganga, have burnt their loved ones in their fields.” When I spoke to him on 20 May, Sagar said that in the previous three weeks, “at least 12 people had died of COVID-19 symptoms in my village and there wasn’t a single household which did not have sick people.”

Every villager I spoke to said the same thing—there was not a single household in their village which did not have sick people. Arvind Sonkar is a resident of Dohari Ghat in Mau district. “The Dohari ghat has one large cremation ground, Mukti Dham. It is visited by people from up to 30 kilometres away, from Mau, Azamgarh, and Gorakhpur. It is on the banks of the Ghaghra River.” He said that on an average, Mukti Dham used to get 20 bodies for cremation daily. “Now, there is no space. Multiple bodies are being burnt on the same pyre. And the pyres stretch for a kilometre inland on both sides.” He said that no one in his village ever remembers seeing something like this. “In this second wave, it becomes impossible to gauge the number of deaths daily. I would say it is more than 500 easily. Bodies were burning day and night. People even started burning corpses on the farmland next to the ground, it got so bad.” Sonkar said that in such a situation it was not difficult to imagine that people “handed over their dead to mother Ganga because there was just no space.” Sonkar, too, observed that the tradition of making biers for the dead had been abandoned.

Sonkar told me on 17 May that at least 20 people in his locality had died in the preceding three weeks. “There was no healthcare in our area,” he said. “For everything people had to go across the river to the Barhalganj town of Gorakhpur.” Sonkar added, “Just a week ago, our local homeopathy college was made into a COVID-19 Hospital. But there is nothing there.”