Hamirpur: When bodies first started floating on the Yamuna river last week, there was widespread panic among the residents of the Merapur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district. But the panic soon subsided, and a quiet resignation creeped in — this was the norm now.
Ratan Kumar, a 47-year-old fisherman in the village, resides near the ghat, next to the river, and was one of the first to notice peculiar objects on the surface of the river last week. On closer inspection, he found that they were, in fact, corpses.
Since then, several more bodies have been spotted on the river and a video of them even went viral, a few days ago. This was similar to another viral video about the 71 bodies that washed ashore from the river Ganga at Mahadev Ghat in Bihar.
“One..two..three..four..five. Look, I can spot at least five (bodies) from here,” says Kumar, pointing at a distance on the river while sitting in his hatch near the ghat. Like others in his village, the fisherman has also accepted them as a reality of the times.
While no one has been able to determine who has been dumping these bodies in the river, most villagers in Merapur are certain that they have come from other districts and not Hamirpur.
Local district administrations have also been pointing fingers at each other, with none claiming responsibility.
“Looking at the condition of the bodies, it seems that their last rites were done through water burial. One body was found in a charred condition and is lying on the river bank towards Kanpur Dehat. Officers of Kanpur Outer have been informed,” Anoop Kumar Singh, additional superintendent of Hamirpur Police, noted in a statement.
No action on bodies in Yamuna, health hazard feared
While most local authorities in the area are cognisant of the situation in Hamirpur, the bodies have been lying untouched in the river for about a week now.
Residents of the district have even complained about the health hazards that the corpses pose, but no action has been taken yet.
The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the stench of decomposing corpses has enveloped the surrounding water body, making it unbearable to venture out into the river.
The villagers also complained that stray dogs around the ghat have been mauling the bodies, leaving flesh pieces behind in the river.
This has made life especially difficult for Ratan and other fishermen of the village, who depend on the river for their livelihood and are forced to enter it, despite the floating bodies.
“Of course it feels very disgusting to be in the river when there are so many bodies there. The stench is really horrible and the flesh pieces make it worse. But as fishermen, we have no other option,” Kumar says.
Even though the villagers alerted the local police when the corpses were first sighted, they have not been touched.
According to ASP Singh, removing the bodies from the Yamuna now will violate the last rites performed on them.
“Those who have opted for jal-pravah or water cremation, have done it for a reason. We can’t just take out the body and violate the ritual, that would be wrong,” Singh tells ThePrint.
ThePrint reached Hamirpur’s additional district magistrate Vinay Prakash Srivastava for a comment and was asked speak to the District Magistrate instead. However, repeated calls to DM Gyaneshwar Tripathi were not reverted till the time of publishing of this report.
Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath Wednesday took cognisance of news reports of the floating bodies in the state and said that the last rites should be done according to the deceased’s religious beliefs.
The CM also, reportedly, said that dumping bodies in rivers, causes pollution and isn’t environment-friendly.
Poverty, Covid stigma and religion
While the Yogi government has called for last rites to be performed according to religious beliefs, Hamirpur’s residents note that it is often poverty that drives people to dispose of bodies into the river.
“Poverty and helplessness are driving their decisions. So this is understandable,” says Janeshwar Rao, 55, a shepherd near the ghat.
Immersing a corpse directly into a water body is allowed under Sanatan Dharma, the most common branch of Hinduism, if a body cannot be cremated. However, there has been an unprecedented spike in this practice recently.
According to villagers who reside near the Yamuna Ghat in Hamirpur, a cremation can cost anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000. This includes the cost of the wood for the funeral pyre as well as the fees of the pandit.
“Cremation is an expensive exercise. You have to procure wood, which is anyway so scarcely available these days. So people find it easier to just dump the body,” says Rao.
The social stigma surrounding Covid-19, even though it is unclear if the bodies were infected by the virus, has also been cited as a reason for the immersion in water.
“In case there has been a death in a family due to Covid, the family members don’t want to invite unnecessary scrutiny by cremating. If they do, then there could potentially be a boycott of sorts they will have to deal with, so it’s better to dispose of the body in a hush-hush manner,” 28-year-old Raju Sateh, another villager and shepherd, tells ThePrint.
Some others noted that a lack of awareness about the appropriate method of disposing off a Covid-infected body has also led people to resort to this method.
Besides poverty and Covid, another reason for these immersions could be the ‘Panchak Nakshatra’.
‘Panchak’ is a time in the Hindu religious calendar when a dead body is supposed to be immersed in water rather than being cremated.
Last week, the period overlapped with the Covid spike, which meant a larger number of bodies in the Yamuna.
“We see a few bodies dumped in the river during the Panchak period. But this year, the number was abnormally high. High number of deaths during this period may have resulted in this,” notes Ashutosh, 50, who runs a shop at the ghat.
(Edited by Rachel John)