If the recent toll in Gorakhpur has not reached double digits, how are there so many bodies burning on the pyres at Rajghat crematorium?
On 1 May, work began to cover railings of the Rajghat bridge in Gorakhpur. Lengthy sheets of vinyl were installed on the side facing the city’s cremation ground, obscuring the view from the bridge. On the sheets was printed the warning that photographing or shooting video of funerals at Rajghat was a criminal offence.
Gorakhpur, which is home to the Gorakhnath Math, of which Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath is the mahant, or chief priest, recorded zero deaths on 26 April. Or so Gorakhpur MP Ravindra Shyamnarayan Shukla, also known as Ravi Kishan, tweeted that day. Four hours later, he deleted the tweet. Several residents we spoke to, who wished not to be named for fear of reprisal, claimed that “dozens of COVID-related deaths” occurred on the day the MP sent out the tweet.
Additionally, this correspondent has accessed a video of the Rajghat crematorium in Gorakhpur, shot on 29 April, which shows at least six funeral pyres burning in the night (Firstpost has reviewed this video and is in possession of it). The district government has released figures which put the total number of active cases at 9,650 on 26 April; 887 new patients were identified and the number of deaths in 24 hours was zero. As of 26 April, the total death toll in Gorakhpur has been recorded as 419.
These claims and counter-claims were investigated by this correspondent and the following are his findings:
Consider state government figures. According to official data at the time of publishing, 13,42,413 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in Uttar Pradesh. Of these, 2,99,279 are active, with 13,447 deaths.
Now, according to Gorakphur district records, one death apiece was recorded on 27, 28 and 29 April; four deaths were recorded on 30 April, none on 1 May and five deaths on 2 May. In such a situation, a question arises: If the toll has not reached double digits, how are there so many bodies burning on the pyres at Rajghat crematorium?
When contacted, an employee of the Municipal Corporation of Gorakhpur, who requested anonymity, said, “For the past year, we have been performing the funerals of COVID-19 victims at Rajghat. Around 23 April, when the number of dead bodies suddenly increased, all our employees working at Rajghat got scared. The situation was such that I had to work from 8 am to 8 pm.”
Two employees who undertake the process of preparing the pyres and cremation told this correspondent on 23 April, “It is our compulsion to work among COVID-affected corpses throughout the day (we can’t be sober when doing it). We are scared, but we have to do this work to make ends meet. There is so much work that 10 minutes do not pass without a new dead body arriving.” The municipal corporation employee added, “We have 20 employees to prepare the pyre, who work in two shifts, the first shift starts at 6 am and the second shift starts at 2 pm.”
He went on to say that since 23 April, the number of bodies from COVID-related deaths has been over 50, but has never exceeded 100. Eighty percent of these bodies are from Gorakhpur, the remaining 20 percent are from neighbouring districts, including those who died during treatment in Gorakhpur and whose families are unable to take them home for some reason.
The municipal corporation employee continued, “The situation is such that three pyres are permanent, whereas on the open platform, eight to 10 pyres have to be built daily. As a result, no employee gets the time to rest or breathe. On normal days, barely three bodies come in for last rites everyday. The data provided by the district administration depicts low numbers because it is data from the government hospital. People are dying in private hospitals and also at home because they’ve had to isolate themselves due to the unavailability of hospital beds. These numbers are very high, but not mentioned on government records.”
Meanwhile, Navneet Sehgal, additional chief secretary of the state Information Department pointed out, “The data we report on deaths belongs to the COVID-19 portal. This is registered after testing in a government or private lab. So after the death of a COVID-19 patient, it takes time to upload information about deaths on the portal. This is a technical issue and not done intentionally. Therefore, while releasing the data, the administration only publishes data that is available on the portal. The data that takes time to upload is published on the portal the next day.”
“But,” he added, “The bodies that are coming in to the crematorium aren’t only those of COVID-19 victims. Some of those also died from other causes.”
An employee of Green Revolution Foundation, a private company that manages the crematorium at Rajghat said, “At present, we are on duty for 12 hours at a stretch. On Sunday (2 May), 53 bodies arrived, of which three were non- COVID-19 victims. On Monday, 70 came, most of which were COVID-19 victims.”
The driver of a government ambulance (that transports corpses) said, “I take the seven to eight COVID-positive corpses to Rajghat daily, sometimes from the district hospital and sometimes the corpses from the airport. There are dozens of ambulances like me that are transporting dead bodies to Rajghat. Things were so miserable a week ago that there was no place here, but the municipal employees worked very hard. However, the situation is improving now.” He did not want to be named.
A member of the management committee of the Mubarakpur Shaheed Cemetery, the largest in Gorakhpur, said, “I am 66 years old, and I have never seen such a bad situation. We used to have 10 to 15 janazas (bodies) for burial in the month during normal days. But after 15 April, we’ve had six to seven daily. In this period, we saw a maximum of nine bodies in a single day. A growing number of dead bodies come from homes, so I cannot say whether they are COVID-19 victims or if they died of other causes. Those that come from the hospital are considered COVID-19 victims.”
The number of bodies, he stated, is now much higher than normal. “It takes four to five hours to dig a grave. If six to seven bodies arrive in a day, then it’s very difficult. So, there is also the issue of manpower that we’re facing. We are presently preparing graves for four bodies,” he said, requesting that his identity remain veiled.
When this correspondent asked the MP, Ravi Kishan, why he deleted the tweet on 26 April, he said, “Look, I tweeted the government data, but when people started trolling me, I had to remove it. The CMO will be able tell you why the data that the authorities released does not have details of the deaths in Gorakhpur. I am trying for AIIMS Gorakhpur [to begin COVID-19 treatment]. Soon, you will get news that treatment has started there.”
Just as on 26 April, zero deaths were shown on 1 May. Then, this correspondent scanned through the Rajghat register.
The employee at Rajghat, who showed the data, said that this register is for the 6 am to 2 pm shift. There is also a similar register for the 2 pm to 6 pm shift. “Our shift can estimate how many bodies came in on the other shift,” the employee noted. According to the register, 17 bodies were received on 26 April in the first shift, 20 dead bodies on 27 April, 33 on 28 April, 24 on 29 April and 40 bodies on 30 April. Whereas on 1 May, the day the administration released the data of zero deaths, 31 funerals were registered, according to first shift.
If the data recorded in the register of Rajghat is to be trusted, and assuming the data of the second shift is similar to the data of the first shift, it brings to light a startling toll. This raises serious questions when compared to the data released by the administration.
In the midst of dozens of pyres burning in Rajghat daily and the huge disparity in data released by the administration, the Gorakhpur administration’s vinyl banners warning people against photographing/videographing pyres raises a key question: Is the district administration trying to hide the number of bodies?
To get an answer, this correspondent contacted Gorakhpur mayor Sitaram Jaiswal. He said, “I am in home isolation, and was not aware that the district administration had covered the railing with flex. I got them removed when I got the news. Actually [the banners] should not have been installed. Regarding data about deaths, It is not my job. My job is to put in place arrangements for the cremation of dead bodies.” On 1 May, the banners forbidding photography and videography of the pyres had been pulled down.
This article is part of an ongoing series. You can read the first part of the series HERE