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Inside UP’s surreal funeral economy

State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) personnel patrolling in the Ganga past shallow sand graves of people, some of whom are suspected to have died of covid-19, in Phaphamau town of Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj (Photo: Reuters)Premium
State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) personnel patrolling in the Ganga past shallow sand graves of people, some of whom are suspected to have died of covid-19, in Phaphamau town of Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj (Photo: Reuters)

  • Between the first and the second wave of covid-19, the average cremation cost tripled—from 5,000 to 15,000
  • Cremating bodies is becoming increasingly unaffordable for a majority of Hindu families in the Gangetic region, forcing kin to either bury them in the sand or float them into the Ganga

NEW DELHI : The phone rang at 6 am on 17 May, a Monday, and jolted Kamlesh Tiwari awake. The caller told Tiwari that a group of people were walking towards river Ganga, carrying two funeral biers. It was the last thing Tiwari wanted to hear on the first day of what would turn out to be the toughest week in his four-year term as a councillor in the municipal corporation of Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj. Trailed by assistants, the heavyset councillor huffed through the sand to intercept the bodies at the edge of the river.

Since early May, human bodies have been streaming onto the dozens of ghats that span the Ganga in Prayagraj—whether to be burnt on a pyre, buried in the sand or to be lowered into the water. The same scenario is playing out in varying degrees in many other locations in Uttar Pradesh through which the river flows. While the official covid-19 caseload has started to come down, both nationally and within the state, bodies still show up. And surveillance is still on, all along the winding river.

Media reports estimate that hundreds of bodies have washed up downstream since the second wave of the pandemic flared up. Not all of them could have died of the disease, but contrary to the daily numbers updated on the district websites, the virus still has many villages in its grip.

Thirty people died through May in just one village, Ojhauli, in Gorakhpur district, as reported by Dainik Bhaskar, which is tracking excess mortality all across the state. “Gaon mein log chup-chap mar ja rahe hain, jal ja rahe hain (In the villages, people are silently dying and silently being cremated)," said Utpal Pathak, a Varanasi-based journalist.

Not all of them end up on ceremonial pyres. Ritually cremating the bodies is increasingly unaffordable for a majority of Hindu families in the Gangetic region. “Maximum people in these parts are daily wage workers," said Vinod Kumar, a currently unemployed man from Robertsganj in Sonbhadra district. “Most of them are out of work. Whatever savings they have, they are exhausting on doctors’ fees and medicines. If they had the money for proper treatment, their relatives wouldn’t have died (of covid) in the first place."

As the rural deaths spiked out of control, so did the cost of cremating the bodies. Resources became scarce, funeral workers went out of sight, supply chains broke down and risks multiplied. Between the first and the second wave of the pandemic, the average cost of cremating a body in the state tripled—from 5,000 to 15,000.

In Prayagraj’s markets, even the wedding shops have cleared out space to showcase funeral items. State officials say at least some people profiteered from the funeral rush. “80-90% of them are good people. Let’s say 5% people in each (funeral) sector profited—from wood contractors to pandits," said Kaushal Raj Sharma, district magistrate of Varanasi. “Not everyone in the industry was driven by a sense of social service. Extortion was happening," added Sharma.

Managing the dead

The visuals scarred the state’s image so deeply that district administrations were forced into damage-control mode. Overnight, their focus shifted from saving lives to also managing the dead.

If people can’t afford to burn their dead, then the government must step in, officials were told. Across the Ganga’s path today, covid-19 management is synonymous with cremation management: regulating prices, bringing back funeral workers, plugging supply gaps, granting subsidies, raising funds, monitoring the ghats, stopping the entry of bodies at the borders, and if all else fails, moving them out of their jurisdiction.

In Varanasi, said Deepak Sahani, a boatman at Assi Ghat, bodies are left in one police jurisdiction and discovered in another. “They are loaded in boats at night and dropped into waters that come under a different police station. But this one time, the current was so strong that the body rolled back to where it was left," he said. Varanasi’s district administration denied the allegations.

The two bodies that arrived on biers at Prayagraj’s Phaphamau Ghat on the morning of 17 May had travelled 120 kilometres. “The families were from Sultanpur in Bihar. Two men were carrying the dead bodies of their mothers. One was 80 years old and the other was 85 years old," councillor Tiwari said.

He is not sure why the men intended to release the bodies into the river. Poverty is not the only reason why people bury or drown bodies in the region. Many are driven by community traditions, superstitions, and covid-19-related ostracization.

“It may be their tradition. But I persuaded them not to do so and guided them to the local electric crematorium where the municipality has fixed the charges at 440," Tiwari said.

The previous evening, Tiwari and his “special team that prevents people from releasing dead bodies into the river" had gathered the pandits (Hindu priests) affiliated to the same ghat and threatened to book them under the Epidemic Diseases Act if they were caught blessing the watery farewell.

Modernity vs tradition

The families of those unable to bear the costs must be directed to the electric crematorium. But they happen to be extremely unpopular. “No one willingly goes there, however economical it may be. If bodies are to be cremated, people believe it should be with firewood in the open and over three to four hours. Not a 30-minute job," said Pranvesh, a Prayagraj-based lawyer who goes by one name.

Until recently, the municipal corporation managed a single open-air crematorium that hasn’t been used since its inauguration in 2019. “The platforms are built in the opposite direction to the one prescribed in Hindu mythology. The head should be placed North and toes South. Now an official order has been passed to change their direction. But it’s too late in the pandemic," Pranvesh said.

The rest of the city’s crematoriums are usually run by contractors. “They are big people. Local tycoons. It’s not the labourers at the ghats who are profiting from the cremations," said the lawyer.

There is no single pattern for how the crematoriums are run in the state, however. “In Varanasi, Doms (a community of Dalits) manage cremation areas and not municipal authorities. That repeats across the Gangetic areas of the state and South Bihar. In Lucknow, that is not so. The community of Mahapatras (a community of Brahmins) do. It is they who are responsible for lighting fire to the body," said journalist Pathak.

After the videos of Prayagraj’s corpse-lined ghats went viral online, the corporation took over the riverbank cremations. “We have sourced and stacked firewood at the ghats and fixed Brahmin donations at 100. They were charging 2,000 earlier. We have sorted it out. No contractor is involved now," Tiwari said.

On 8 May, the Prayagraj municipality announced free funerals for the BPL (below poverty line) families. “They have to apply to us, and we will transfer 5,000 to their bank account, which will cover the cost of firewood," Tiwari said. He didn’t know how many people had sought or received the funeral grant yet. “Show me a single person who has got a free funeral," lawyer Pranvesh challenged.

For those who can pay for a funeral, the state government has fixed the price at 7,000. In Varanasi, where covid-cremation charges reached as high as 70,000, the civic body has put up notice boards at the ghats announcing the new price. “Between 3,000 and 4,000 for firewood, 3,000 for rituals and 300-400 for the Dom for lighting the pyre," said the district magistrate.

The price regulations may relieve the public, but they have angered the workers. “In the cases of covid deaths, often, everyone else in the family is sick and in home isolation. No more than one person is accompanying the body," said Gaurav Kapoor, a city-based leader of the Congress party. “It is workers at the ghats who help in carrying the body, washing it, dressing it, cutting the hair, picking flowers. They are taking incredible risks. If they are asking for more money, who can blame them?"

River patrols

Tiwari ends his working days with a steamer trip around Prayagraj’s waters. Wearing life jackets and peering into telescopes, he and his 24-member team circle the ghats looking for suspicious activity. “We are doing 24/7 patrolling." Tip=offs have also been invited from the public. If the team finds a body floating in the water, they are duty-bound to bring it up and cremate it ritually, but none has been found yet. “If the state started pulling up and cremating bodies, they would have to add all of those deaths to their official numbers. Why would they do that?" argued Pranvesh.

Regardless of the new rules and regulations, people in the villages say they can only rely on each other. When Vinod Kumar’s paternal aunt’s father-in-law passed away two weeks ago, he said: “The initial plan was to go to the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi city, but we were hearing the cost would be 5,001, so after a lot of discussion, it was decided to take the body to a nearby ghat. We went home to home in the village collecting pieces of wood, making up one quintal among ourselves. One more quintal was bought at the ghat. The cremation was done for 3,001."

Firewood economy

Those who grow their own trees are chopping them up before heading towards cremation sites; families that live near forests are dashing in after a death. But access to firewood is deeply hierarchical. “Not everyone in a village is allowed to cut trees or ask for donations… especially the deprived communities such as those from certain Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes," journalist Pathak said.

Firewood is central to the Hindu funeral economy. It comes in various categories—mango, eucalyptus, mimosa—and prices. A single gap in the delivery chain can knock the system to the ground. In Uttar Pradesh, the government says it is stocking up on firewood to face a possible third wave. Tiwari says tenders have been floated by the municipal corporation and proposals are awaited from firewood dealers. The process is longwinded, but the files are passing along.

In Varanasi district, the magistrate said enough firewood (“five to six truckful") has been sourced to last at least a month. But bodies continue to be left on the banks. In Robertsganj, Vinod Kumar said: “Those who are not (financially) able see no other option. After all, no one wants to bury the dead in their backyard. There have also been rumours that if you release a dead body into Mother Ganga, the holy river will send them back resurrected."

On 19 May, councillor Tiwari was back at Prayagraj’s ghats early in the morning. The special committee was on a new mission to “clean up" the banks. For hours on end, municipal workers were seen removing the holy sheets covering the sand graves and the wooden sticks framing them. Printed with Lord Ram’s name, the red and orange sheets are meant to honour the dead, but thanks to the non-stop aerial coverage of the ghats, they have ended up quantifying the state’s unacknowledged covid-19 deaths.

Seen from the skies, they give the impression of blood splattered across a beach. Whoever came up with the idea of removing the shrouds perhaps did not anticipate more viral videos, but they are still circulating. On 25 May, the district administration ordered an investigation and set up another special committee. Tiwari said his team was only removing the wooden sticks and did not touch the sheets.

In recent days, heavy rains have lashed the riverbanks and augur more bad news for the bodies. “I was on the Phaphamau Ghat. The rains have loosened the sand. Occasionally, you will see a finger or a toe," Pranvesh said.

A full-blown monsoon is expected by 15 June, causing a wide range of worries.

In Prayagraj, people fear that the graves will be drawn into the water. In Varanasi, said Deepak Sahani, the boatman at Assi Ghat: “Once the river is in full flow, it will throw up the bodies." If the bodies hit the downstream, Pathak, the journalist, argues: “No one knows where they will end up." In the villages lying dangerously close to the river, he said, people were anticipating strange occurrences. “The water will rise. The flow will quadruple. They won’t be surprised if months from now, skeletons wash up at their doorsteps."

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