By Barkha Dutt
This week, I took a three-hour boat ride down the Ganga, traversing a little over 30 kilometres from the Mehndi Ghat in Kannauj to the Nanamau Ghat in Kanpur Dehat, in pursuit of understanding why dead bodies are piling up on our river banks in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar and why corpses are floating in the river.
Most recently, over a 12-day trip through rural UP, I personally counted more than 1,000 bodies at six different points, spread over a few thousand kilometres from the east to the west of the state.
The presence of mass graves, and the fact that those who have died during the Covid-19 surge are being abandoned and dumped either because of lack of money for cremations or the continued fear and stigma around the pandemic, is horrifying. But what is even more horrifying is the Indian State’s callous refusal to acknowledge this truth.
On the issue of these graves by the river banks in UP, we have seen one of three responses from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters. One, there is absolute denial and a tendency to look the other way, while patting UP on the back for what is patently questionable death data. Second, there is attack on the handful among us who are on the field, in extremely trying physical circumstances, with abuse and threats. And finally, it is claimed that this is an old practice among some communities to bury the dead instead of cremating them and so to link it to Covid-19 is false.
It is this last claim that I will counter by drawing attention to scores of local testimonies recorded on camera.
Subhash, a boatman, helped us navigate our way through the water, past stray animals that hovered about corpses and past pyres that were being lit by the banks even in the smallest villages. He told us that the carnage, at its peak, was so bad that he shut down his boats and ran away for a few days. “I have been working for 30 years and I have never seen so many bodies in my life. Mujhe ghabrahat ho gayi (I panicked).”
Mayank, a young boy who helps with entries at the Mehndi Ghat cremation ground, said he had counted 1,500 bodies in all at the one single ghat he looks after in recent weeks. “I have worked here for eight years and I have never seen anything like this,” he told me.
In Kanpur, where the bodies lie stacked up in ravines so sandy and rocky that our car would not go down and we could only access the spot by motorcycle, local residents said people would come in the cover of the night, when no one was looking, and abandon the bodies and hastily make their way home.
At Prayagraj, as the police watched, the Ramnaami chadars were ordered off the makeshift graves — the ultimate indignity. A local pandit walked me through the banks and asked the fundamental question: “Will our Covid dead ever be counted, will we ever know how many people have died from Covid?”
Theoretically, without exhumation and testing, we cannot unequivocally prove that all of the deaths are from Covid. But the fact that these bodies have piled up at multiple points within the last four to six weeks, the exact period of the second wave, is telling. Especially when you couple it with what’s happening in our villages, where there is hardly any Covid testing and most people are dying in their homes without reaching hospital.
At cremation sites, in cases where families had accompanied the bodies for the last rites, villagers testified to a surge of deaths in their hamlets. There was a common refrain. “Every day, four or five bodies leave for the funeral grounds.” This account of a sudden surge in deaths in rural India was true for villages all the way from the east in Varanasi to the west in Basi Gaon, two hours from Delhi.
Yes, locals have explained to us that children and young brides have always been buried and never cremated. But none of these customs explain the volume of the bodies all along the Ganga. Even in the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, in Sujabad, seven bodies had to be buried by locals as they washed ashore. And at the farthest point in Unnao, by the river’s open fields, where there is hardly anyone to be seen, a young cowherd told me that over the past two weeks, 20 bodies had washed ashore or been left in the sand.
Angry denials, obfuscation, calling those covering the issue vultures, none of this addresses what’s staring us in the face — the under-reporting of Covid-19 deaths and the stubborn refusal to even count the bodies. India’s citizens deserve better, in life and yes, in death.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author.