Relatives in personal protective equipment (PPE) suits perform the last rites before the cremation of their loved one, who died due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, on the banks of the Ganges River in Garhmukteshwar on May 5, 2021. (PRAKASH SINGH / AFP)
Indian environmentalists are immensely alarmed at frequent dumping of dead bodies, suspected as COVID-19 victims, into the Ganges River and its tributaries recently, saying such incidents will further pollute the rivers and adversely affect the local ecology by increasing the bacterial loads.
Federal minister for Jal Shakti Gajendra Singh Shekhawat said the government had taken a serious note of the issue of dumping dead bodies in River Ganga and launched measures to check such incidents in future. The federal Jal Shakti ministry was formed by merging two ministries—Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
Over the past few days, about 200 bloated and decomposed bodies have been found floating along the banks of the Ganges and its tributaries in two of India’s most populous states
The Ganges, India’s most spiritually sacred river, is considered the lifeline to millions who live along its course. Over the past few days, about 200 bloated and decomposed bodies have been found floating along the banks of the Ganges and its tributaries in two of India’s most populous states, local media reported.
This has triggered alarm and concern among the villagers who use water for drinking and washing utensils. They also fear an epidemic might break out in the villages due to the rotting smell reaching them for the past days.
In Bihar’s Buxur, a south-western district bordering Uttar Pradesh, as many as 71 bodies were found floating in the river, said local officials. They were quickly fished out from the river under the inspection of the local district authorities and their last rites performed as per the COVID protocols. Dozens of partially burnt and decomposed bodies were also spotted floating in rivers in three districts of UP, such as Balia, Ghazipur and Hamirpur.
“The doctors refused to conduct an autopsy on the recovered dead bodies since they were in highly decomposed condition. So we were unable to establish reasons behind their deaths but we have preserved DNA samples of the corpses for future need,” Buxur’s top most district official Aman Samir told the media.
Many say the families of the COVID victims have been dumping the dead bodies into the rivers due to increasing cost of cremation, shortage of fire woods to cremate bodies and also the crematoriums have been working overtime, making the grieving families wait longer for their turn to perform the last rites.
“There is severe scarcity for space and fire woods to perform the last rites of the bodies piling up at the crematoriums. Also, the crematorium's staff have been charging exorbitant money for each cremation. This has forced the villagers to dispose of the bodies into the rivers,” said Asha Devi, a local village council chief in Buxur district.
Local villagers say similar things. “How can you expect poor villagers to spend Rs7,000-Rs8,000 on arranging woods to consign the bodies to flames when they don’t have enough money to buy medicines for treatment. Well you can imagine the misfortune,” said Satya Pandey, a local villager.
The Bihar government officials say these bodies came flowing downstream to the state from neighboring Uttar Pradesh. Taking the matter seriously, the authorities have now deployed security guards at local crematoriums functioning along the river banks in Buxur district and also installed a big net across river Ganges and launched boat patrolling.
Another environmentalist Vikas Chandra, also known as Guddu Baba for his life-long dedication to the cleaning of Ganga, said the dead bodies were highly contagious
The Uttar Pradesh state administration too has intensified vigil along the river banks to prevent villagers from disposing of bodies of the dead in the rivers. A local village councilor from UP’s Hamirpur district Dinesh Nigan told the media that large number of people were dying in villages in the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic and they were dumping the bodies into the river since neither the family members nor co-villagers were helping them out of fear of getting infected by the deadly virus.
Scientists are also worried at the continual disposal of the bodies into the rivers. “The disposal of dead bodies into the Ganges will adversely affect the health of the river ecology by increasing the bacterial load,” said RK Sinha, prominent environmentalist. He said the river was already polluted and the recent addition of bacterial load would only add to its pollution level.
Zoological Survey of India’s regional director Dr Gopal Sharma apprehended the aquatic animals feeding on these infected bodies might also get infected with the virus even though not much research had been carried out so far.
Another environmentalist Vikas Chandra, also known as Guddu Baba for his life-long dedication to the cleaning of Ganga, said the dead bodies were highly contagious and would most likely to affect the health of people coming in contact with the river water.
“In March 2001, the Patna High Court banned dumping of the dead bodies in Ganga yet this goes on unabated today. This is a very dangerous situation. I am going to file a case in the court soon,” Chandra said.
The National Mission for Clean Ganga, the apex body that monitors rejuvenation of the river and its tributaries, has also voiced observance of safety protocols
A senior scientist working with a US-based non-profit organization said the river water quality would obviously get affected when the bodies start decomposing and generate bacteria. “I have come across media reports about the bodies packed in PPE kits being pushed into the river. That obviously means they are of the COVID victims. The government will have to act fast before it is late,” the scientist said wishing not to be quoted.
Indian government has been spending billions to clean the Ganges.
The National Mission for Clean Ganga, the apex body that monitors rejuvenation of the river and its tributaries, has also voiced observance of safety protocols.
“This (dumping of bodies) not only causes pollution in the air but is also unhygienic, and increases the risks of spreading infections in the communities, inhabiting along the banks of the rivers, warranting emergency measures,” NMCG Director General Rajiv Ranjan Mishra said in a letter to the heads of various states issued on May 11.
The NMCG DG also sought to ensure strict vigilance along the length of the river within territorial jurisdiction of the district to prevent and check such future incidences of people dumping dead bodies into the river Ganga and its tributaries and of any other activities hazardous for the rivers, and health & hygiene of the area.
The Indian government launched the Namami Gange Programme in June 2014 with the total budgetary outlay of Rs200 billion for the period from 2014-15 till December 31, 2020 to accomplish the twin objectives of “effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation” of Ganga and its tributaries.
The Central Pollution Control Board has identified 351 polluted river stretches on 323 rivers in September 2018 on the basis of water quality monitoring, according to a statement issued by the Press Information Bureau.
The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS