The Ganga ghat at Baksar in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, has seen an unprecedented rush as dead bodies await their turn to be cremated, or buried. As the poor cannot afford the Rs 15,000 required for a cremation, they are choosing to bury their dead for Rs 700.
As far as the eye can see are shrouds, in shades of red. They mark the makeshift graves of people recently buried. Almost every few yards are unmarked graves. Photo: Sumit Yadav
Unnao, Uttar Pradesh
Baksar village in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh, is known for the Chandrika Devi temple. The holy river Ganges flows through it, and a grotesque reality is unfolding on her banks…
It is 10:30 am in the morning, and a line of dead bodies lie, awaiting their turn to be cremated. Or buried. That depended on how much money their near and dear ones had for their last rites in the raging COVID19 pandemic.
“Cremating a body can cost you up to twelve to fifteen thousand rupees. If you can’t afford that, burying is cheaper and can be done for about six to seven hundred rupees,” Moon, a masked onlooker from Unnao’s Bhagwantnagar, who had accompanied his neighbour who lost an elderly member of his family, informed Gaon Connection.
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As far as the eye can see are shrouds, in shades of red. They mark the makeshift graves of people recently buried. Almost every few yards are unmarked graves. Some of them are partially dug up by dogs. “Most of those who lie here are poor mazdoors (labourers), who died, and their families didn’t have money to cremate them,” Moon said.
The Ganga ghat at Baksar in normal times sees about 25 dead bodies a day to be cremated. “Since the second wave of the mahamari (pandemic), three hundred to four hundred dead bodies a day have been arriving at this ghat. Even today, there are nearly a hundred and fifty bodies waiting for their last rites,” Vanshu, an inhabitant of Baksar told Gaon Connection.
There is hardly any space and the dead are being buried right up till the edge of the river. And there is a fear that as water level rises, these bodies may end up in the river. In the past few days several dead bodies, possibly COVID victims, have been found floating near the Ganges in Chausa village in Buxar district of Bihar, and in several spots in Ghazipur district, Uttar Pradesh.
“Since we ran out of space, the ghats on the other side of the river are also being used to bury and burn the dead,” Vanshu added , pointing to the opposite banks where people are clearly performing the last rites.
People are bringing the dead from villages as far as in Kanpur Dehat district, nearly 100 kilometres away. Many of them claim that so far, no COVID19 testing was done in their villages so they do not know if those dead died due to the coronavirus or some other ailment.
Meanwhile, priests, people who clear up after the cremations, boatmen who take the families mid-stream to immerse the ashes, are doing brisk business as the bodies continue to arrive at Baksar ghat, about 95 kilometres from the state capital, Lucknow.
Unlike the first wave of COVID19 last year, the virus has spread to rural India in the raging second wave. Village after village is in the grip of fever, cold and cough — classic COVID symptoms — and people are dying too. But, public health experts claim that the corona death toll in rural India is underreported and underestimated.
“Gaon me halaat bahut kharaab hain [situation is grave in villages],” said Moon as he waited for his neighbour to cremate an elderly family member at Baksar ghat. “In villages, people were still suffering from colds, coughs and fever. Jhola chaaps (quacks) are working there. Sometimes the medicines they give work, sometimes not.” Infections are rising but there is no facility or help to attend to the patients, he added.
“The infections in the villages are high but there are no medical facilities to attend to the sick,” Moon of Bhagwantnagar told Gaon Connection.
A common refrain was that the media and the government were underreporting the ground reality. Santosh Kumar, from Kanpur Dehat district, who had come to cremate an elderly person from his family, said, “Whatever you see in the media amounts to nothing as compared to what is happening on the ground. Doctors are not paying attention to the older people, hospitals are not equipped to admit all those who need immediate medical attention, the numbers of the COVID 19 cases are higher than what is being reported officially,” he said.
According to official data released by the state government, the number of new cases reported from Uttar Pradesh have come down in the past two weeks but death rates due to COVID19 continue to be high.
About 20 days ago, on April 23, the number of daily cases reported in Uttar Pradesh was 37,238 with 196 deaths due to the virus across the state. The daily cases have come down to 17,775 on May 13 and 281 deaths.
To get a clear picture of the spread of the virus in rural areas, on May 5 the Uttar Pradesh government launched a house to house rural survey across all its 97,409 revenue villages to screen people for corona symptoms and distribute medical kits.
Meanwhile, the Unnao administration has swung into action after the disturbing visuals of Baksar ghat went viral on social media. Today morning (May 13), people hired by the district administration were found spreading sand on the ghat.
“It came to our notice that some dead bodies have been buried in Baksar. Baksar is situated at a location that is close to the borders of many districts like Raebareilly, Fatehpur and Unnao. So traditionally, people from all these districts bring their dead to this ghat for cremation. After we got to know that people have buried the bodies in the sand, I sent a team to respectfully manage the bodies and directions have been issued that such a thing is not repeated,” Ravindra Kumar, district magistrate, Unnao, said in a press statement last night.
When asked if these bodies were of COVID patients in the vicinity, the district magistrate said that the information he had received so far, did not indicate this.
While the administration conducts an ‘enquiry’ and officials gather ‘data’, grave diggers at Baksar ghat are busy day and night. “Sometimes there are so many bodies to be buried that we are unable to dig deep enough,” a grave digger at the river bank, told Gaon Connection. He did not want to be named. “We have seen some of the graves, being dug up by dogs,” he said, finding it hard to hide his revulsion.
Written by Pratyaksh Srivastava and edited by Pankaja Srinivasan.