High costs of cremation forcing villagers in Uttar Pradesh to bury the dead or dump bodies in the river

Some have taken to burying dead bodies; some are cremating bodies in the fields. Some are dumping them in the river

Too many ashes urns can be seen hanging from tree
Too many ashes urns can be seen hanging from tree

Biswajeet Banerjee

Normally, villagers take ‘seasonal fever’ in their stride. But in the last few weeks many villagers have died on the third or fourth day of fever, confirms Raja Bhaiya, convener of an NGO in Banda. One can hear women and children wailing in almost every village, he says. Peepal trees, from which one or two urns with ashes of burnt bodies would be see hanging earlier, now have many more urns hanging at the same time.

While the suspicion is that villagers are dying of Covid, nobody knows for certain. Few tests are being done and bodies are being cremated in the middle of fields or are being dumped into rivers because the cremation costs can be as high as Rs 15,000, which is a lot higher than the monthly income of most of these villagers. The costs are high enough to have prompted some Hindu villagers in Unnao to bury their dead. Burial of the young and unmarried, they are said to have argued, was permissible.

At the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, rates for cremation have gone up to any amount ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. Ramesh Kumar Singh, a member of Bandhu Mahal Samiti, a charity helping cremate dead bodies, says, “In this pandemic, cremation of dead bodies is big business. As the dead bodies are piling up, the sharks are there to feast on them. I have seen people touching the feet of Doms, the traditionally low-caste people who cremate bodies, and beg to lower rates.”

This could partly explain why people are dumping dead bodies in the river wherever it is accessible, he felt.

Doctors seem to have stopped attending primary health centres, either because they have been mobilised to help elsewhere or because of Covid fears, but paramedics do confirm that they have been left on their own. “Barring paracetamol to bring down fever, we have nothing but our words to offer patients,” said a paramedic from the PHC at Sarojini Nagar on the outskirts of Lucknow.

Quacks have always treated villagers and in Covid times they are the villagers’ only hope. One such quack, Dr Biswas in Chinhat, claimed he had been following government’s guidelines. While there is no medicine for curing Covid, he insists he has been prescribing medicines suggested by the government and that villagers are indeed recovering.

The state government claims to be conducting door-to-door screening and testing of villagers. Government spokesman Navneet Sehgal said that Rapid Response Teams comprising ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) and Aanganwadi workers have fanned out to 97,000 revenue villages in the state.

Villagers however contest the claim. R.N. Bajpai from Rendura Pallari village in Barabanki says no one had visited either for testing or for inspection.

“I and my family members tested positive but though I sent messages to the District Magistrate (DM) and CMO (Chief Medical Officer) of Barabanki for testing others in the village, nobody has come so far,” he claimed.

Sukhai Ram from Karonda also claimed, “Seven people have died in our village of fever but no testing was done.”

The Panchayat elections, the wedding season and the harvest are being held out as culprits for the Covid surge.

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