Unable to afford skyrocketing cremation services, desperate families in COVID-devastated India have revived a banned ritual of burying bodies in the sacred Ganges river.
Thousands of dead bodies have been found floating in India’s longest and largest river in the country’s deadly second wave, which has killed more than 120,000 and infected 12 million since April 1. The river runs through some of India’s worst-hit COVID-19 regions and most Hindu crematoriums are close to its banks.
Now, experts are concerned that water burials of COVID-19 infected bodies might have a devastating impact on endangered animals in the Ganges and the communities close to it.
Ramesh Kumar Singh, an activist from Varanasi city in northern India, who also lives by the Ganges, said he has never seen anything like this before. “Not even in the first wave of COVID-19,” Singh told VICE World News. Singh, a member of Bondhu Mahal Samiti, a philanthropic organisation that helps cremate bodies, said “there were so many bodies” by the river.
“Some charred, some partially burnt because people threw them in the river before they finished cremating them.”
For India’s Hindu-majority, ritual burial usually involves open-air cremation on burning wood. But as overburdened crematoriums became symbolic of India’s COVID-19 crisis, prices of cremation services shot up.
Not everyone was able to afford them. “Some desperate people started throwing bodies in the river,” said Singh.
A viral video also emerged of stray dogs dragging and mauling decaying corpses from the river.
The Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted rivers but it is also India’s most sacred river.
It was even given a “living persons” status in 2017 by courts in the country. Its clean-up is one of the most lavishly-funded projects by the government of Narendra Modi and has so far cost at least INR 28,966 crores ($3.9 billion).
Last week, the National Mission for Clean Ganga called the bodies in the river a “grave violation of COVID safety protocol”, and raised an alarm for the communities living around the river.
This, as Indians who live along the Ganges feared disease.
But it’s not just humans that are of concern – the Ganges is also home to endangered sea life. The Gangetic river dolphins and a family of crocodiles called gharial are on the verge of extinction.
“A big worry right now is how these bodies would impact the biodiversity in and around the Ganges,” Dr K Sivakumar, a scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, told VICE World News.
“The dolphins and gharials are indicators of the well-being of Ganges,” said Sivakumar. “If these critical animals disappear from the biodiversity profile, then the entire system will collapse.”
He cautioned that both dolphins and gharials breathe through lungs, unlike fish which breathe through gills, “COVID-19 is known to transfer through droplets in the air. Assuming that droplets survive in water, it could impact sea life that breathes through lungs.”
While the practice of dumping bodies has sparked worry, at least some academics are calling for calm. Professor Vinod Tare, who heads a government think tank called Centre for Ganga River Basin Management and Studies, told VICE World News that there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through rivers.
“Water burials, in general, are not a good practice,” said Tare, whose team will initiate the impact of the dead bodies on Ganges’ water and soil. “It’s still not clear that floating bodies are all infected with COVID-19 at the moment. The government is taking serious action on this.”
The floating bodies also invited sharp criticism of Modi’s government.
Both Tare and Sivakumar said that water burials had largely stopped two decades ago. “People are more educated now. In the last 15 years, I’ve only seen a few such incidents. But of course, there are always violators,” said Tare.
In the meantime, as the government figures out its strategy for handling the thousands of water burials, some villagers are helping fish out bodies from the river and burying them in mass graves.
Singh, the activist, said there has also been some improvement in surveillance as local authorities are closely watching water burials.
“There is more security now,” he said. “The constant coverage means more organisations are intervening now in terms of helping people cremate their dead.”
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