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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Explained: When corpses of influenza victims were dumped in Narmada river in 1918

Here is the official report from 1918, sourced from the National Archives, which sheds more light on what happened.

Written by Man Aman Singh Chhina | Chandigarh |
Updated: May 12, 2021 8:10:03 am
Emergency hospital during Influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas – NCP. (Photo by Harris & Ewing via Wikimedia Commons)

There have been reports from Bihar about bodies floating in the river Ganga and washing up on its banks. It is believed the bodies belong to Covid patients whose relatives did not likely find space for their last rites and threw them upstream in the river.

Something very similar took place during the influenza epidemic, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, more than a century ago when corpses were seen floating in Narmada river in an area which is now part of Madhya Pradesh.

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Here is the official report from 1918, sourced from the National Archives, which sheds more light on what happened.

Which reports mention the fact about bodies of the 1918 influenza epidemic victims being dumped in Narmada river?

The National Archives include a report titled ‘The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in India’. This report contains another report by the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India which dealt with princely states and is dated June 1919. This report contains a detailed note sent by the General Officer Commanding 5th (Mhow) Division on November 12, 1918. The covering letter’s excerpt states, “I have the honour to forward herewith for your information copy of a report by the Political Agent in the Southern States on the pollution of the Narbada (now Narmada) river with influenza corpses.”

This note was addressed to the Major General- in charge-Administration of the Army’s Southern Command. This note was forwarded by the Southern Command to the Quarter Master General at Army Headquarters in Shimla with the remarks, “It appears very necessary that the attention of the Government of India be drawn to the present state of affairs.”

What does the actual report on the Narmada river state?

The report begins by stating that there have been alarming reports about the insanitary conditions of the Narmada river at Khalghat (a town in Madhya Pradesh).

“Finally it was reported that owing to the large number of decomposing corpses in the stream between Khalghat Dharampuri the ferrymen refused to ply. I found that there was no exaggeration. The deaths are so numerous while whole families, and also those who attend to cremations, are suffering so severely from this epidemic of influenza that cremation had become impossible,” the report states.

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What reasons are given in the report for dumping of corpses in the river?

The Political Agent states in the report that the situation caused due to the epidemic was far beyond ordinary arrangements and since wood or cow dung were not available, hence bodies were simply thrown into the Narmada.

“The stream is low and these collected round the shores at Khalghat until the air for a considerable distance from the shores was polluted by the stench. The boatmen said the corpses were always becoming entangled with their boats and that the stench was so bad that they could not cross,” he adds.

What was done to remove these corpses from the river?

It is mentioned in the report that accumulations of corpses were removed by the “simple but insanitary process” of passing them down the stream. ‘I personally saw a corpse on the far side of the stream brought down to be thrown in while several were being brought in carts and on biers along the road. In the river itself were eight floating down with crows sitting on them, all highly decomposed.

Does the report mention where these corpses were coming from?

It mentions that the Political Agent was informed that the corpses were floating down from higher up in Maheshawar.

“The same difficulties are no doubt being felt elsewhere. The Diwan ordered that arrangements should be made to collect cow dung cakes and wood at burning ghats, but it is practically impossible to obtain any carts and probably it will not be possible to carry out the orders effectively. I may add that no reports of the condition of affairs had reached the Darbar until I informed them. This is due in part to the fact that the local authorities are mostly sick and also to that curious apathy which distinguishes them when things pass beyond ordinary methods of control,” the report states.

What does the report say about the severity of the epidemic in the region?

“The dispensary doctors are many of them ill and their stocks of medicine are exhausted. At Gujri and Kakarda, deaths amount to about two a day, at Dhamnod and Khalghat about the same but some villages are reported badly hit. The Diwan informed me that over 4,000 are ill in Dhar town and some 900 attend daily at the hospital, which is more than the medical establishment depleted by illness itself can cope with,” the agent says in the report.

He goes on to add that it is not indifference on part of the Darbar but the impossibility of coping with such a widespread epidemic that is responsible for the present condition.

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