Updated: May 19, 2021 1:53:13 am
On the morning of May 12, on the banks of the Ganga in Bihar’s Buxar district, a resident spots large objects floating on the water surface. He doesn’t need a closer look to know what they are. “Aaj 5 lag raha hai (there seem to be five today),” he turns and calls out. The objects are human corpses, which have been floating up to the river’s surface for the past few days now, evoking shock and horror, and making Buxar hit international headlines.
The Bihar government has claimed the bodies are floating in from Uttar Pradesh; the neighbouring state has denied the charge; while the Centre has asked states along the Ganga to “ensure strict vigilance” and prevent people from dumping bodies in the water.
Residents of the area, however, are rather nonplussed by what they call the “misplaced brouhaha”.
Why bodies end up in the river
“There are several cremation grounds along the river. Corpses being consigned to the water is not unheard-of. Locals are quite used to seeing floating bodies. The shocking thing here is the number of corpses, and the Covid risk they possibly carry. But bodies found floating in a river near cremation grounds in itself is nothing “apocalyptic”,” says Ashutosh Kumar Pandey, a social worker who hails from village Pandeypur in Buxar district, and now lives in Arrah town.
Prashant Pratyush, a businessman from Buxar, agrees, and says the “media attention on bodies” has led to another problem. “Visuals of the floating bodies were quite gruesome. The Bihar government, under pressure, is now busy proving the bodies came from Uttar Pradesh, rather than focusing on managing Covid in the area.”
Residents say the river turns near Chausa, because of which floating bodies get stuck here. Bodies can end up in the river for various reasons. The poor often can’t afford wood pyres, and so the bodies are set ablaze, but then consigned to the river half-burnt. A full-fledged pyre usually costs around Rs 8,000, a steep amount for many. Now, amid the pandemic, this has gone up to Rs 15,000.
Also, in certain causes of death — such as snake bites — a water burial is preferred over a wood pyre. In case of Covid deaths, there is the fear of stigma, and so people are quietly disposing of the bodies of their loved ones in the river. Bodies are set off towards the east, and right now, a purvaiyya, or the east wind, is blowing, leading to so many bodies surfacing. All of this, however, points to an obvious fact — there are no electric crematoriums here.
‘Govt prepared for neither life nor death’
Sudhakar Singh, RJD MLA from Ramgarh, which is part of the Buxar Lok Sabha constituency, says, “Corpses have also been found near Ghazipur in UP, upstream from Bihar. The floating bodies have blown the lid off how little the state prepared for the second wave of Covid-19, and how clueless the Centre is about state realities. The MP from Buxar is MoS health, Ashwini Kumar Choubey. The MP from Varanasi (close to Ghazipur) is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And yet, these areas are prepared for neither life nor death. In my constituency, one ambulance is supposed to cater to roughly 1 lakh people. In rural areas, people need to go to the nearest Sadar Hospital for Covid testing. There is just one proper hospital, and three referral centres.
And despite the Centre talking so much about its Namami Gange project, between Varanasi and Patna, along the path of the Ganga, there is not a single electric crematorium. Where does the Centre expect the bodies to go?”
The complaint of poor facilities is echoed by others. Daddan Pahalwan, ex-JDU MLA from Dumraon, also part of Buxar Lok Sabha seat, claims, “The bodies are the most arresting spectacle of the government’s failure. But I don’t think locals are surprised. Covid testing means long queues in government hospitals, and hefty fee in private hospitals. Oxygen cylinders are hard to find, or being sold at sky-high prices. Vaccination in the villages is not even a concern yet. And despite the low testing, both Covid deaths and cases are being under-reported.”
‘Floating bodies might increase Covid awareness’
Buxar resident Onkar Nath Tiwari, a bank employee, says the low testing was partially because of a reluctance among people to get tested. But the floating bodies may help with that, he feels. “Till very recently, not everyone was taking coronavirus seriously. Even though people were dying, the deaths were put down to “high fever” or typhoid. But the visuals of the bodies seems to have brought the scale of the threat home. I hear more discussions, more enquiries about Covid now.”
The government, too, has come out with steps. Manish, a photojournalist with a Hindi newspaper, says he saw new posters at cremation grounds saying the state has fixed rates for pyres at Rs 200-500, depending on the wood being used.
‘What about water contamination?’
A big concern among residents now, however, is water contamination and how it is being addressed.
Sarita Devi, a homemaker who lives in Buxar, says, “Bodies surface, the government disposes them. But if even some of the corpses were of Covid patients, what about water purification? Dogs nibbled at those bodies and are now roaming in the villages. How much of a risk is that? No announcement so far has been made from the government about how they plan to address the water contamination. We don’t care if the bodies are from UP or Bihar. We just want to know what danger they pose to us, and how the government plans to protect us.”
Tiwari and Maneesh too said their families are concerned over the water contamination issue.
According to Bihar health minister Mangal Pandey, as of May 11, the state had a total of 1,02,099 active Covid-19 cases, while the recovery rate was 82.77%. In a tweet, the minister said the state had carried out more than 2.75 crore testings, and also announced a 24-hour Covid helpline, 1070. Bihar is under lockdown till May 15.
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