The monsoon season in India has begun, and with it comes seasonal flooding. This means that the currents in the 1,550-mile-long Ganges have picked up and dislodged many bodies buried in shallow sand graves along its banks.
Hindu families usually cremate the bodies of their deceased. But in April and May, at the height of the country’s coronavirus crisis, many families in the country’s north and east were forced to bury their loved ones in shallow graves along the Ganges. Reports noted that these families were unable to afford the cost of funeral pyres for the cremation. (Related: Indian coronavirus victim’s relatives throw his body into river.)
Instead of getting the bodies cremated, they would submerge the bodies or conduct water burials as part of their religious traditions. This is considered a normal occurrence in non-pandemic times. Especially destitute families would have to settle for burying the bodies of their loved ones in shallow graves.
Locals said the funeral ceremonies can cost more than 7,000 rupees ($100). This added to the hardships of families already struggling to make ends meet as the Indian economy is still attempting to recover from the economic lockdowns.
Most of the bodies came from the city of Allahabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Allahabad is one of the holiest cities in Hinduism and where millions go each year to perform funeral rites.
From Allahabad, the bodies were discovered downstream in the nearby town of Phaphamau on the northern banks of the Ganges. Many of the corpses were discovered still wrapped in the saffron cloth they were buried with.
In the past three weeks, Allahabad officials said they have cremated around 150 bodies that were dislodged from their shallow graves.
Many other villages and cities lining the Ganges have shallow graves and human mounds. This includes the religious hub of Varanasi, which also reported experiencing similar problems to Allahabad, with bodies being washed away by the currents.
If the bodies are not recovered, they could turn the Ganges toxic
Indian health officials have estimated that up to 600 bodies were buried in sand graves alongside the Ganges in Allahabad. But locals believe this is just a fraction of the real figures. They fear that more corpses could be dislodged from the banks of the Ganges if the rapid currents continue in the coming weeks.
Sonu Chandel, a boatman who works for a crematorium along the Ganges, said he was shaken by the sight of dozens of families burying their dead two months ago. His sense of uneasiness with the entire situation heightened as soon as the river’s water level rose.
“It was really sad to see poor people burying their loved ones in an undignified manner,” Chandel said in an interview with AFP. “But the rising water level has made it worse.”
“There is always the fear of [a body] hitting the oar or [my boat] running over a dead body as the water level goes up.”
Uttar Pradesh locals like Chandel are worried that if the hundreds of corpses are not removed, it could risk further contaminating what is already considered to be one of the world’s most polluted rivers.
“This … could cause dangerous diseases,” said Dipin Kumar, a resident of Allahabad who lives in a neighborhood right next to the Ganges. “The government must think this over and only they can make a plan.”
Indian police, with the help of disaster crews, have begun patrolling the river looking for bodies. Authorities in Uttar Pradesh said they have stationed two boats along the banks of the Ganges to retrieve the bodies but have had little success in the past few days.
“The flow [of the river] is very fast and it is a challenge to fish out bodies now,” said one police officer.
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