Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, head of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) admitted that the River Ganga became "an easy dumping ground for the dead" at the height of the second Covid wave earlier this year between April and May. According to a report in The Indian Express, Mishra said this problem was confined to Uttar Pradesh only.
However, "no more than 300" bodies were dumped in the river and "not the 1,000 plus reported", the Ganga mission chief added.
At the height of the second covid wave brought on by the Delta variant, hundreds of bodies were found floating in the river Ganga. Overwhelmed by the devastating second wave, India recorded 1,63,459 COVID deaths in April and May 2021. Undertakers at crematoriums and burial grounds worked overtime to cremate and bury the dead in accordance with religious rituals. In May, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued an advisory to the Centre, the States and Union territories seeking the enactment of a special law to protect the rights and dignity of the dead in light of the piling bodies.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar officials got into a blame game each pointing fingers days after the bodies were found floating in the River Ganga.
The admissions were made in the book 'Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting' jointly authored by Mishra and Puskal Upadhyay, an IDAS officer who has worked with the NMCG. Launched on Thursday, the book features a chapter titled "Floating Corpses: A River Defiled", which provides a chilling account of the impact the second COVID wave had on the Ganga. The chapter further states that all the work done to "save" the river over a period of five years came 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," the book read.
After spending five years with the NMCG, Mishra, a 1987-batch Telangana-cadre IAS officer, retires next week on December 31.
Floating bodies not unusual, but swelling numbers accentuated COVID crisis: Ganga Mission Chief
In his book, the Ganga mission chief acknowledged the custom of some communities to bury their dead in the river but added that the surge in the number of floating bodies caused concern.
"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…," Mishra's book read. "It was during my stay at the hospital (Mishra was COVID positive) that I realized the urgency of the matter," he added.
This prompted Mishra to direct all the district Ganga committees to take "necessary action" to tackle this issue and submit an "action taken report".
Uttar Pradesh began collating district-wise data of "unidentified dead bodies or unclaimed corpses" from the Ganga and its tributaries days after Mishra asked the Yogi Adityanath-led government and the state of Bihar to submit a "detailed report" on the issue.
Peppering his book with personal accounts, Mishra said, "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."
"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 heartbreaking 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," an excerpt from the book read.
The book also reveals poor COVID management in all 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," the book said.
"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…," the book added.