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In Covid-19 second wave, river was dumping ground for dead, admits Ganga mission chief

🔴 Titled Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting, the book has been authored by Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the director general of National Mission for Clean Ganga and head of Namami Gange, and Puskal Upadhyay, an IDAS officer who has worked with the NMCG.

Written by Harikishan Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: December 29, 2021 7:57:15 am
On May 11, when the second wave was peaking, the NMCG under Mishra asked all 59 District Ganga Committees to take “necessary action” to address the issue of floating dead bodies and submit an “action taken report”.

The Ganga became an “easy dumping ground for the dead” during the devastating second Covid wave and the problem was confined to UP, according to a new book that was launched Thursday.

Titled Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting, the book has been authored by Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the director general of National Mission for Clean Ganga and head of Namami Gange, and Puskal Upadhyay, an IDAS officer who has worked with the NMCG.

Mishra is a 1987-batch Telangana-cadre IAS officer and served the NMCG in various capacities for over five years during two stints and is set to retire on December 31, 2021. The book was launched on Thursday by Bibek Debroy, chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

In one section titled “Floating Corpses: A River Defiled”, the book provides a chilling account of the pandemic’s impact on the Ganga, and states that five years of intense work to “save” the river appeared to be coming undone in days.

“As the number of bodies swelled and multiplied because of the Covid-19 pandemic, overwhelming district administrations and stretching the functional limits of crematoria and burning ghats of UP and Bihar, the Ganga became an easy dumping ground for the dead,” reads the book.

But it cites data provided by districts to state that “no more than 300” bodies were dumped in the river and “not the 1,000 plus reported”.

Certain portions of the book make it clear that they were authored by Mishra. For instance, the book states: “I was recuperating from a severe Covid-19 attack in the Gurugram-based Medanta, a super-speciality hospital when I heard about the unclaimed, half-burnt and swollen corpses floating in the holy Ganga in early May.”

It states: “Television channels, magazines, newspapers and social media sites were awash with macabre images and stories of bodies being dumped unceremoniously into the river. It was a traumatic and heart-breaking experience for me. As the Director General of the NMCG, my job is to be the custodian of the health of the Ganga, to rejuvenate its flow, ensure its return to its pristine purity and to ensure the same for its tributaries after years of neglect.”

Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, DG, National Mission for Clean Ganga.

On May 11, when the second wave was peaking, the NMCG under Mishra asked all 59 District Ganga Committees to take “necessary action” to address the issue of floating dead bodies and submit an “action taken report”.

Days later, it asked UP and Bihar to submit a “detailed report” on the issue, following which UP began collating district-wise data of “unidentified dead bodies or unclaimed corpses” from the Ganga and its tributaries. Later, a senior UP official told Central officials in a meeting that the disposal of dead bodies in rivers was prevalent in the central and eastern regions of the state.

The book goes on to highlight poor Covid management in all riparian states along the Ganga. “Poor management of funeral services, miscreants taking advantage of the situation to dump bodies into the river instead of cremating them, and adverse publicity from the media only added to our discomfort and helplessness,” it says.

“Adding to our woes was the fact that the NMCG has no direct power or authority to punish miscreants or to initiate action against those disposing of the dead in the river or burying them on the river banks…,” reads the book.

Discussing the tradition of burying the dead on the banks of rivers among some communities in UP, the book reads: “Floating corpses or the dead being buried on the banks are not an unusual spectacle for those living in close quarters near the river… However, the swelling numbers and the macabre images accentuated the enormity of the crisis… It was during my stay at the hospital that I realized the urgency of the matter.”

Another portion that bears Mishra’s stamp states: “After reading the reports of various district magistrates and panchayat committees, I realized that the number of bodies dumped into the river was no more than 300 (definitely not the 1,000 plus reported by a section of the media). The problem, moreover, was confined only to UP (between Kannauj and Baliya), and the bodies found in Bihar were also those floating from UP.”

The book also refers to how Mishra issued directions to district administrations on May 11, just two days after he was discharged from hospital.

“I also realised that mere use of force was not going to do the trick due to the ignorance of the rural population about Covid-19 cremation protocol and no access to oximeters and testing facilities. Moreover, poverty-stricken people who had used up all their money on doctor’s fees and medicines to fight Covid-19 were in no position to pay the enhanced cremation charges nearly trebled within days,” the book says.

“I authorized the district authorities to use the funds from the District Ganga Committee to fund dignified cremations in case needed.”

Writeback

Responding to a report in The Indian Express (‘In 2nd wave, river was dumping ground for dead, admits Ganga mission chief’, December 24) Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the outgoing director general of National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), has sent a rejoinder:

“This is a sensationalist and mischievous attempt by the paper to further a particular narrative instead of going by the nuanced detailing in the book.

“The fact that bodies were floating in the Ganga during the second wave was seen by everyone. Who am I to accept or reject it? Does the paper feel it has indulged in great investigative journalism by selectively highlighting certain points and hiding the entire perspective I have given in detail about this issue…

“In the book I have narrated the efforts of the government and the mission for cleaning the Ganga and how the different challenges are being successfully handled…I have highlighted that on receipt of ‘news’ of corpses floating in Ganga, we swung into action for verifying the facts, which were:

  • The number of corpses found in Ganga was much less than were actually reported in media at that time.
  • It is also a cultural practice in some stretches of river in UP to give burial in sand to dead bodies.
  • Due to overwhelming of the crematoria/burial grounds which had to follow covid protocols , lack of means of family to pay for cremation expenses and also some miscreants taking advantage of these problems, some corpses were let off into Ganga instead of cremating them….

The report does not take into cognisance, the various innovations that were done to achieve the present level of cleanliness of the River and the confidence of the people in the fruits of the Government’s actions.

“The book ‘Ganga: Reimagined, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting’ co-authored by me is…an account of the honesty of purpose and sincerity of action of the government for drawing up and executing in record time, multi-pronged strategies for cleaning Ganga.”

The Indian Express replies:

The book, “Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting”, authored by Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the director general of National Mission for Clean Ganga and head of Namami Gange, and Puskal Upadhyay, who has worked with the NMCG, has a dedicated section titled “Floating Corpses: A River Defiled” on Page 33. On the same page of the book, Mishra states that he heard about “the unclaimed, half-burnt and swollen corpses floating in the holy Ganga in early May.”

The report accurately quotes this.

The report flags all the three points the author raises in his response: the number of corpses found in Ganga was much less than were actually reported in media at that time; it is also a cultural practice in some stretches of river in UP to give burial in sand to dead bodies; and due to overwhelming of the crematoria/burial grounds which had to follow covid protocols, lack of means of family to pay for cremation expenses and also some miscreants taking advantage of these problems, some corpses were let off into Ganga instead of cremating them.

The report also clearly mentioned that “no more than 300” bodies were dumped in the river and “not the 1,000 plus reported”; “Floating corpses or the dead being buried on the banks are not an unusual spectacle for those living in close quarters near the river”; and “poverty-stricken people who had used up all their money on doctor’s fees and medicines to fight Covid-19 were in no position to pay the enhanced cremation charges nearly trebled within days.”

The report mentions how Mishra, when the second wave was peaking, asked all 59 District Ganga Committees to take action.

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