On May 18, 4,529 people succumbed to Covid in India, its highest single-day death toll due to the disease. Crematoriums and burial grounds were full, pyres were lit in parking places and parks; riverbeds became mass burial grounds. Income disparities aggravated the crisis. Dead bodies floating on the Ganga was one of the defining signs of the pandemic’s second wave, pointing to the undignified treatment of the people who succumbed to the virus. In Delhi and Bengaluru, two of the worst-hit cities, people reportedly had to wait for 20 hours to cremate their friends and relatives. This insensitivity towards the dead added to the trauma of their family members.
In the initial days of the pandemic last year, WHO issued dead-body management guidelines. The Centre and several state governments issued protocols in line with those guidelines. However, this system collapsed in several places of the country during the second wave.
In 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court ruled that a river is “a legal person” with corresponding rights. The undignified dumping of Covid-19 dead bodies in rivers not only infringes on such rights but could also prove detrimental to the ecology of these water bodies. Given that experts fear a third wave of infections, the dead-body management protocol must be given legal backing to ensure dignity to the deceased as well as for ecological purposes.
The right to life guaranteed under the Constitution encompasses dignity in death — the judiciary has affirmed that in several verdicts. In 1963, while asserting that the dead ought to be treated in a dignified manner, the Madhya Pradesh High Court ruled that “the word person cannot be so narrowly constructed to exclude the dead body of a human being”. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to dignity pertains not just to “a living man but also to his body”. Last year, the Madras High Court asserted that the fundamental right to life guaranteed under the Constitution includes the right to a decent burial or cremation. The Calcutta High Court also delivered a similar verdict last year.
While responding to a public outcry after two horrific cases of mismanagement of Covid-19 dead bodies, the SC laid down guidelines for hospitals in such situations. But these guidelines were undermined when the number of Covid deaths surged in April-May.
The National Human Rights Commission has taken cognisance of the matter and issued notices to the Centre and governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In May, it also issued an advisory stating that dead bodies should not be allowed to “pile up during transportation” or “because of any other reason”. It asked governments to encourage the use of electric crematoriums and ensure that mass burials do not take place.
In the light of what has happened in the past two months, the Centre must frame legislation that incorporates NHRC’s recommendations, the WHO’s guidelines, and the norms followed by medical authorities across the world. To avoid issues related to the identification of the deceased during a disaster, photographic documentation of bodies is a must. In case of a shortage of refrigeration facilities, authorities may use temporary burial sites. Data from such sites can be consolidated centrally and used for a range of purposes, including forensic analysis as well as to understand the magnitude of the tragedy. Finally, hygiene protocols should be put in place and care should be taken to ensure the safety of those who handle corpses.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 18, 2021 under the title ‘Dignity to the departed’. George is an advocate at the Supreme Court and Bhaskaran is a Delhi-based policy analyst. They are part of a humanitarian response team, DMC India.
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