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Amid rising deaths, poor in Unnao struggle with funerals

Last rites: Families cremate bodies at the Baksar ghat in Unnao.   | Photo Credit: Omar Rashid

Having travelled 30 km from his village Parsanda with the body of his teenage niece in an open mini-truck without any fuel or wood for cremation, Bachu Lal was caught in a fix when the cleaners at the Baksar ghat informed him he would not be allowed to bury the body due to new directions from the administration.

The ghat came under official spotlight earlier this week after visuals showed a large number of bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims buried there, allegedly due to scarcity of cremation resources and rise in fatalities due to the infection — a claim yet to be officially acknowledged.

Since the girl was unmarried, Bachu Lal’s family, as per customs, had planned to bury the body instead of cremating it. Cremation with the proper rituals would cost the family around ₹6,000-8000, a sum they could ill afford amid the ongoing lockdown. A distraught Mr. Lal said just a month ago, the family had buried the body of a relative at the same site without any hindrances.

The family says the girl had got fever, which stayed for three days, following which she died. “She would feel giddy and had a history of fits, for which she was under treatment,” said Mr Lal. Asked if she had been tested for COVID-19, he said she had not. “She did not have COVID,” he says firmly.

The family said since the doctor who treated her in a Lucknow government hospital had stopped seeing patients during the second wave, she could not get treated and her condition had deteriorated.

Baksar Ghat is located in Unnao along the Ganga but is very close to the borders with Rae Bareli, Kanpur and Fatehpur districts. The administration recently launched a probe after an unknown number of bodies were allegedly found buried in the sand at two locations by the Ganga — one of them Baksar.

At the ghat on Saturday, half-a-dozen bodies have already arrived for cremation though it is not even 10 in the morning. Three pyres have been lit. There is hardly any physical distancing as kin and friends of the dead prepare for their turn.

Beyond the cremation sheds, mounds in the sand are marked with saffron or white cloth. Clothes, broken objects and dirt are strewn on the uneven ground as dogs and crows scan the landscape for possible remains. Some dogs can be seen digging aggressively in sand bars in the river where a few bodies were recently buried after the main ghat ran out of space. It is difficult to estimate how many bodies may have been buried at the site but locals say the figure is above 200.

Rakesh, one of the many cleaners on the ghat, has spent two decades of his life digging the pits and clearing the surface of the cremation ghat — a task his ancestors have done for generations.

He says that while the ghat usually received 15-20 bodies or less daily, during the peak of the COVID-19 in April, as many as 70-80 bodies arrived for final rites on a single day. Of these, children and those from poor families were buried as many could not afford the cost of firewood, he said. “Nobody cremates their little children,” he explained.

Rakesh admits that due to the huge rush of bodies at the ghat over the past month, they have not been unable to keep it tidy. “It is usually not so dirty,” he said.

Prakash, another cleaner, says there had been a long queue at the cremation site last month. “We tell the people to not throw the body into the river but bury them instead,” he said. The cleaners say the bodies buried at the ghat go as far back as six years. Jal Pravah or immersing bodies in the river is not encouraged by the administration.

The number of bodies coming to the ghat has dropped over the past week and none of them were buried since the controversy broke out, said Rakesh.

Asked if those buried had died of COVID, both Rakesh and Prakash said they did not know. “The relatives don’t even take the name of corona. Some say death happened due to fever, others say it was a ‘sudden death; breathing, TB, heart attack...,” said Prakash.

At another end of the ghat, Guddu, a priest, is guiding the family of a deceased elderly woman through the cremation. “Unlock the braids. Remove the necklace. Let the rest of the adornments be,” screams Guddu.

He says that most of the bodies that come to the ghat get cremated. And among these most of them are non-COVID deaths. “Do-char body beech mein ayi thi lekin (But a few COVID bodies did come here recently),” he said. Like the cleaners, Guddu also said there was a sudden increase in the number of bodies at the ghat last month.

“For a month, we had 70-80 bodies daily,” he said.

Guddu feels the problem of burials for financial reasons can be solved if the poor are provided free wood. “How will a poor man afford wood for₹4,000? Besides that, he will have to spend on the pyre material, the sandalwood, ghee, incense and also tip the panda (priest) and the cleaners and also provide snacks for those who accompany the body,” he said.

Lalta Prasad, who sells wood near the cremation site, says the number of bodies reaching the ghat reached a peak during the panchayat polls in April. He has now started providing one quintal wood free of cost to poor people who cannot afford cremation.

‘No abandoned bodies’

Sub-divisional magistrate Bighapur Daya Shankar Pathak said not a single body was found in the open on the ghat. “All were found buried,” he said, when asked what the probe had found so far.

Asked if instructions had been given banning burials after the matter came to light, Mr. Pathak said, “No, people who are conducting the last rites are doing it as per their customs.”

District Magistrate Ravindra Kumar said not a single body was found floating in the Ganga. There are several sites in Unnao where, as per customs, bodies are either cremated or buried, he said. “Unmarried people or kabirpanthis don’t cremate but bury,” he told a television channel.

The DM also stressed that no new burial site where bodies were found had been assigned in Unnao during the pandemic.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 7:33:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/amid-rising-deaths-poor-in-unnao-struggle-with-funerals/article34567744.ece

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