Why are Unnao villagers burying their Covid dead by the Ganga?

They can’t afford costly cremations. So many are laying their loved ones to rest near the river ghats and some on their farmlands.

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In Unnao, 40 km south of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, villagers are forced to bury their loved ones instead of cremating them. It’s the same story in every village: it starts with a fever, some develop a cold, breathlessness sets in, and they die.

For the first time in familial memory, in the homes of Dalits and upper caste Thakurs alike, the dead are resting in graves and not getting cremated on pyres. Some are buried by the ghats of the river Ganga, which makes news. Others are laid to rest on their farmlands, and forgotten.

Deepak Kumar, 21, returned to his village Kumbhi in Unnao on April 21. He’s a daily wager in Daman, a coastal enclave in the union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu.

“A relative was due to get married on April 30, but my mother fell ill on April 26,” Kumar said, sitting on his small verandah. A breathless Rameshwari, 45, was taken to two private clinics in the nearby town of Sumerpur. One collected her blood sample, the other refused to even tend to her.

The next day, as Deepak was taking her to the Unnao district hospital, his mother succumbed. “I wanted to cremate her at Ganga ghat in Baksar, but I did not have the money,” Deepak told Newslaundry. “She had saved Rs 15,000 of the money I would send her. But I cannot withdraw it unless I get her death certificate, which I still do not have.”

According to Ram Bahadur, Deepak’s neighbour, who lost his younger brother to Covid, cremation at the ghat in Baksar, 25 km away, costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000.

“You have to pay for the wood, the car which carries the body, the pandit who chants the prayers, and for snacks and tea for those who accompany you,” Bahadur told us. “Not everyone can afford it in these times.”

On April 28, Deepak had to bury his mother on his farmland, no bigger than a quarter of an acre. “It still pains me that she had to be buried,” he said.

In the nearby village of Bargadha, Shiv Pratap Singh, 40, died of Covid on April 25. Two of his neighbours also died that week. “We went to the local primary healthcare centre three times in three days,” his brother Shiv Bharan Singh told Newslaundry. “It was of no use. In fact, we were told he did not have Covid.”

The news came in Shiv Pratap’s final hours. When he was lifted into an ambulance in a breathless state in the morning on April 26, the ambulance driver told the family that he had typical Covid symptoms. “He died on the way,” said Shiv Bharan. “Without any medicines or treatment. He could have been saved.”

That day, Shiv Bharan and his brothers took Shiv Pratap to Baksar ghat. “There was fear all around,” he recalled. “No one wanted to stay there for more than two minutes. Standing around a pyre takes way longer, so we decided to bury him. It was unbearable.”

A pandit chanted mantras from a distance, and for Rs 700, a gravedigger dug a pit. “He was the first in our family to be buried. We had no other option,” said Shiv Bharan.

At the Baksar ghat, a man who dug graves explained why families had taken to burials. “The main reason is poverty,” he said. “The poor can’t spend so much money on buying wood, oil and then paying the pandit. So they simply arrange for a grave and get done with it.”

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