District officials in Modi’s constituency either blamed private hospitals of under-reporting deaths or claimed most of those brought to be cremated or interred in Varanasi were from some other part of Uttar Pradesh.
Two hundred and twenty-seven. That’s the number of COVID-related deaths that occurred in Varanasi between 1 April and 7 May, according to the COVID bulletin issued by the government. The district surveillance officer (DSO) stated that 650 coronavirus deaths occurred in the past year. However, if you ask authorities at the Manikarnika Ghat, approximately 1,500 bodies were cremated between 15 and 23 April alone. Meanwhile in Varanasi’s 13 cemeteries, a social worker noted that there had been no less than 1,680 burial ceremonies conducted in that time period. Varanasi is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency.
In order to understand the COVID-19 outbreak in Varanasi, it is instructive to examine the data released by the district administration. According to data released on 1 April, 196 new cases were recorded in Varanasi district, while there were 622 active cases in total. But in 15 days, these numbers changed drastically. On 15 April, 1,484 new cases were registered, while there were 11,756 active patients. By 30 April, the number of active cases had grown to 16,345. On the same day, the number of people who were healthy and discharged was 2,030. When asked if testing was being increased with the rise in the number of COVID-19 patients, the DSO opted not to respond.
For centuries, Varanasi has been home to two major crematoria for centuries — one of which is the Harishchandra Ghat. A member of the ‘Dom Samaj’ family, who looks after setting up pyres, said, “The number of bodies at our ghat increased from 8 April and carried on doing so till 5 May. But between 17 and 21 April, the number of bodies was more than 100. Around three-quarters of these bodies belonged to COVID-19 victims. It was becoming very difficult to manage the bodies being brought in for the last rites. Around a hundred people of the Dom society were performing the cremation process during these crucial days. It was a challenging phase because during this time we had to cremate more than 100 bodies, whereas on normal days, only 25 to 30 bodies had to be cremated. At our ghat, only 15 dead bodies can be cremated electrically, and so the rest of the bodies have to be cremated on pyres. We did not have PPE kits, but God fully protected us. No member of our society had any kind of infection while cremating the bodies of COVID-19 victims. We are happy that the situation is normal today.”
The ‘Dom Samaj’ member added that two or three members of the families of the deceased used to bring the bodies, but they didn’t want to touch them. “So we enlisted four men from the municipal corporation to bring the bodies from the ambulance. They were paid Rs 2,000 for bringing the body to the pyre. As for our remuneration, while we used to receive Rs 5,000 for a regular body, we were paid Rs 7,000 to cremate a COVID victim’s body. This rate was fixed by the district administration to ensure that the mourning family was not wronged.”
The increased demand for funerals is exacerbated by the paucity of wood. According to the ‘Dom Samaj’ member, “There is only one wood stack at the ghat. In such a situation, people are delayed for upto two hours. The number of bodies cremated can be estimated from the quantity of wood used. Normally, one-and-a-half trucks worth of wood is used in a day at Harishchandra Ghat. That is around 22 tonnes of wood per day; two-and-a-half quintals of wood are used for the cremation of a single corpse.”
Elaborating on the burials in Varanasi, the social worker quoted above, stated on condition of anonymity, “The 1,680 burials in the month of April were spread across 13 cemeteries. There were around 350 at Jumman Shah Revdi Talaab, around 125 at Altaf Shah Kutchi Bagh, 200 at Chaman’s Takiya Chhora Thana Jaitpura’ 150 at Ghazi Mian Badi Bazaar, around 125 near Bhole Shah Baba Arif’s Masjid, 150 at Chaukaghat Dubaiya, around 100 in the cemetery opposite National Inter College, around 60 at Peeli Kothi Motijheel, around 90 at Peeli Kothi Adampur, 90 at Hafiz Jumman Rajapura, about 90 in Horisatle, around 100 people at Bataunshaheed Kacchi Bagh and about 50 at Khet wali Masjid Lallapur Fatman Road. Most of these people were locals of Varanasi.”
A member of the Jumman Shah Rewari Talab Cemetery management said, “In this cemetery, barely two or three people used to be buried per month on normal days. But in the month of April, 350 bodies were buried here. But now by Allah’s grace, the situation in the cemetery has returned to normal.”
The owner of a store supplying bamboo for cemeteries in Varanasi, said on condition of anonymity that while the situation is improving, at one time, it was so bad that the daily sale of bamboo was equal to the amount we sold in a whole month. “We did not even have a single second free. The situation was the same in other shops as well. There was a demand for bamboo in every shop,” he added.
At the Manikarnika Ghat, Shalu Chaudhary, who looks after the funeral process, said, “From 15 to 23 April, the situation in Varanasi was very miserable and painful to see. During this time, the number of bodies being brought to our ghat was around 150 a day. Normally 50 to 60 bodies are brought for last rites to our ghat.” According to him, there are 25 permanent members of staff on the payroll, which was sufficient for cremation work on normal days.
“But when the number of bodies increased, it became a challenge to work with these numbers. Plus, staffers began leaving work out of fear of COVID-19 . The one thing I am very sad about is that the media spread negative news about us, claiming that there was no place for pyres at our ghats. This is completely wrong. During the peak of COVID-19 , we worked 24 hours a day, because if we did not, then who would? The number of bodies increased from 10 April onwards, but between 15 and 23 April, around 1,500 bodies were brought to Manikarnika Ghat. However, till date by God’s grace neither my staff nor I have had any health problems. Also, the situation is normal now.”
Chaudhary maintains that not all the bodies brought to Manikarnika Ghat are actually from Varanasi. “In fact, a majority these bodies belong to the neighboring districts and some nearby districts of Bihar. If 50 bodies come to the ghat, 40 are from other districts. Now you will ask why bodies from other districts come here: The reason is religious belief. People believe that if the last rites are conducted in Varanasi, then the deceased gets salvation.”
“While people come to Varanasi from other districts with bodies,” he continues, “Patients from other districts who dies here, also do their last rites here. For that reason, the number of bodies in Varanasi is high. But the records of dead bodies are not maintained here. In fact, in 1998, the then Banaras Commissioner stopped the recording process of dead bodies here. Since then no data of anyone’s death is recorded here, if there was a record, we would have shown you how many bodies from other district are brought here for last rites.”
Durga Yadav, who supplies wood to the Manikarnika Ghat, said, “During Navratri, the bodies came in large numbers on all nine days. This happened when the spread of COVID-19 was at its worst, there was no place in the hospitals and people couldn’t get treatment. During this time, we had put 40 people to work at our wood shop, to prepare wood for pyres.” According to Dr Pawan Chaudhary, chairman of the Kashi Mukhadayani Seva Samiti that is facilitating the free cremation of unclaimed bodies, “When there was an increase in the number of dead bodies, we stopped counting and kept doing our jobs. I have a shop wherein I sell items used for last rites and during that time the sale doubled; you can imagine the rate of deaths. But now the situation is normal.”
When it comes to officials of Varanasi district, there are divergent opinions regarding the undercounted toll.
Holding private hospitals responsible, district nodal officer VS Roy said, “There is no such thing as undercounted deaths. In fact, in COVID deaths, we count only those who are already registered on the COVID Portal and after death, [their cases] should be closed on the portal. But in private hospitals, the death of COVID-19 patients is often hidden and not properly reported on the COVID Portal. However, when the number of dead bodies appears unbalanced, we have circulated an Excel sheet to the private hospitals to give details of the deaths in qurstion. I hope that confusion about the number of bodies will be cleared soon.”
On the other hand, District Surveillance Officer SK Kannaujia said, “Of the total number of bodies you saw at Manikarnika Ghat or Harishchandra Ghat, there were hardly any belonging to Varanasi residents. These bodies belong to patients from neighbouring districts like Jaunpur, Bhadohi, Sonbhadra, Chandauli and Azamgarh.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that there have been over 3,000 funeral services conducted in Varanasi between 15 and 23 April alone.
This article is part of an ongoing series. You can read the rest of the series here
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