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Those living along the banks of the Ganga, especially pilgrims who visit Prayag or Varanasi for a holy dip during amavasya, purnima and other auspicious occasions, have long been accustomed to the sight of an occasional corpse floating down the river. As these incidents were few in number, they were never investigated to establish if the bodies had been consigned to the waters by those too poor to pay for a funeral, in the hope that this epitome of divinity would take the departed soul straight to the heavenly vaults.
The tale of queen Taramati being unable to pay Raja Harishchandra, now an employee in a cremation ground, for the last rites of her son, suggests that families too poor to pay for cremation are not unknown. Closer to our times, Munshi Premchand’s short story, Kafan, alludes to this grim reality. Indeed, on visits to a cremation ground, it was common to see a family seeking donations to pay for the wood to cremate a dead body. As the money was usually collected, the episode was soon dismissed from mind and did not get attention from the administration or civil society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront as hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies have been discovered floating along the banks of Ganga. After Buxar district in Bihar raised the alarm as over 70 bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims from eastern UP landed up in the downstream Chausa village, several newspapers reported that over 2,000 dead bodies had been found hastily buried along the banks of the river in Ghaziabad, Kanpur, Unnao, Ghazipur, Kannauj and Ballia regions that were ravaged by the disease.
One daily newspaper (Dainik Bhaskar) claimed that over 900 bodies were buried in shallow graves in Unnao, 350 in Kannauj, 400 in Kanpur, and 280 in Ghazipur, and the numbers are rising across the State. Unseasonal rains and rising tides uncovered the graves and caused the bodies to spill into the river, raising fears of mass contamination even though scientists say that dead bodies do not shed the Coronavirus.
This massive abandonment of the dead without cremation, prayers and immersion of ashes with due ceremony in the holy river, is a huge blow to the millennia-old civilisational and cultural ethos of India, particularly of its majority community. Across the country, there are reports of families too frightened to claim their dead from hospital mortuaries; often good samaritans, neighbours and members of other communities step forward to perform the last rites. The situation is serious and tit-for-tat arguments about bodies having been found during the regime of other political parties are tantamount to passing the buck.
An unstated reason for this catastrophe is the heartless and brazen corruption of staff involved in the cremation process. In the past also, there have been reports of villagers walking miles to cremate a family member as the local hospital refused to provide a hearse van – free, that is. But these were viewed as solitary incidents.
This issue has now become an epidemic in itself, in large parts of northern India. Private hospitals do not provide free hearse vans to take a body to a crematorium. Public hospitals are affordable, but the picture changes dramatically when the body reaches the cremation ground.
Staff at the cremation ground refuse to pick up the body from the van, and demand money every step of the way – from putting the body on the pyre, to fetching wood (already paid for) from the storeroom to the pyre, helping to burn it properly, paying the priest, etc. These days it is common for a body to be accompanied by just one person from a family, often an elderly person, who can be seen wailing piteously for help as the hard-hearted staff stand by.
COVID has ruled out the presence of family and neighbours who can overcome this despicable blackmail. News of just one story can make an entire neighbourhood recoil from the crematorium experience. Little wonder that bodies are lying unclaimed in hospital mortuaries (to be disposed of by municipal authorities), or put in shallow graves by villagers living close to the river.
Civil society organisations have not realised this problem and its dimensions, so there is none to help in this man-made calamity. Some families admit that prohibitive costs are a factor behind the shallow graves; at times a family has more than one victim. A cremation ground worker told media persons that previously the wood for a pyre cost around Rs 500, but now it can cost up to Rs 2,000, and ghee, samagri and other costs can bring the total amount to nearly Rs 10,000.
Simple items like shroud (kafan), ghee and puja items necessary for cremation are subject to “scarcity value”, much like the Remdesivir injection or blood plasma before these were ousted from the COVID medical protocol. Middle class families complain of extortion – Rs 4000/- for a kafan (dhoti size cloth), Rs 2000/- for a kilo of ghee, and so on. But they manage to fulfill their religious and cultural obligations.
However, poor families simply cannot afford these prices; nor can this amount be raised from charity as hardly any mourners come to the cremation grounds any more. Authorities admit that rising costs have triggered the shallow grave phenomenon.
As sheer poverty forces the poor to renege on their religious and cultural commitments, the large scale on which this is happening calls for Government and administrative intervention. All along the banks of the Ganga, district administrations are retrieving bodies and giving them a decent cremation or burial. As rain brings hundreds of shallow graves to the surface, the State Government has ordered the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and Jal Police of Provincial Armed Constabulary to patrol all rivers and prevent dumping of bodies.
But this is not enough. Municipal authorities are overstretched, but they must network with volunteer organisations to ensure that every victim is given a decent cremation / burial. Bodies must be claimed from hospitals; those who die at home must be accompanied to the crematorium and given a respectful farewell. This service, once instituted during the current pandemic, can be continued so that the unfortunate custom of abandoning bodies due to poverty comes to an end.
Ironically, in 2020, cycle mechanic Mohammed Sharif aka ‘Chacha Sharif’, 83, was awarded the Padma Shri for arranging the last rites for over 25,000 unclaimed bodies over the past 25 years, in Faizabad, UP. The pandemic has made it imperative that the need for such services be officially recognised and provided for at the level of panchayat and municipality. The dead deserve their dignity.