(AP) — Police
in northern India are reaching out to villagers to investigate the recovery of bodies buried in shallow sand graves or washed up on the banks of the Ganges River, prompting social media
speculation that they are the remains of COVID-19
Police used portable loudspeakers with microphones in jeeps and boats to warn people
not to dispose of bodies in rivers, saying, "We are here to help you perform the last rites."
Rains revealed the cloth coverings of bodies buried in shallow sand graves on a wide, flat riverbank in Prayagraj, a city in Uttar Pradesh state, on Friday. While officials say the riverside burials have been going on for decades, the sheer volume in the shadow of the pandemic
is drawing more attention to the practice.
On Sunday, Navneet Sehgal, a state government spokesman, denied reports in local media that more than 1,000 corpses of COVID-19 victims had been recovered from rivers in the previous two weeks, saying, “I bet these bodies have nothing to do with COVID-19.”
According to him, some villagers did not cremate their dead as is customary, due to a Hindu tradition during certain religious periods, and instead buried them in rivers or dug graves on riverbanks.
According to Ramesh Kumar Singh, a member of the Bondhu Mahal Samiti, a philanthropic organization that assists in the cremation of bodies, the number of deaths in rural areas is very high, and poor people have been disposing of bodies in the river due to the exorbitant cost of performing the last rites and a lack of wood; the cost of cremation has tripled up to 15,000 rupees ($210).
An Associated Press
photojournalist estimated there were at least 300 shallow riverside graves on a sand bar near Prayagraj on Saturday, each grave covered by an orange, yellow, or reddish cloth and appeared to be laid out in the same direction. Several Policemen were on the scene, but allowed a family who arrived in a small truck to bury a 75-year-old woman at the site.
K.P. Singh, a senior Police officer, said authorities had designated a cremation ground on the Prayagraj riverbank for those who died as a result of COVID-19, and Police were no longer allowing any burials on the riverfront. Authorities in Sehgal state had discovered “a small number” of bodies on the riverbanks, he said, but did not specify how many.
On the other hand, a 30-year-old Buddhist came to the same Prayagraj riverbank with other family members on Sunday to bury his mother, who he said died of a heart attack
“She was not infected with COVID-19,” Vijay Kumar told the Associated Press, adding that his religion allows for both cremation and burial, but he chose burial.
Last week, 71 bodies washed up on a Ganges River bank in neighboring Bihar state, according to health officials.
Authorities conducted post-mortem examinations but stated that due to decomposition, they were unable to determine the cause of death.
A dozen corpses were also discovered last week buried in sand at two locations on the riverbank in Unnao district, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh state capital, and an investigation is underway to determine the cause of death, according to District Magistrate Ravindra Kumar.
With nearly 358 million people in total, India's two largest states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have been among the worst hit in the virus surge sweeping through the country, with devastating death tolls. Desperate villagers have been rushing the sick to nearby towns and cities for treatment, many of them dying on the way, victims of India's crumbling health care
According to Dr. V.K. Paul, a government health expert, the number of new cases was stabilizing after hitting record highs for weeks.
On Sunday, the Health Ministry reported 311,170 confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours, down from 326,098 the day before.
It also reported 4,077 more deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 270,284, according to experts.