The situation outside Ghaziabad’s Hindon ghat, April 2021. Photo: By arrangement
New Delhi: The UP government’s COVID-19 bulletin on Friday reported zero deaths from Agra, Ghaziabad and Jhansi districts in the past 24 hours, and just one death from Bareilly. In total, the UP government bulletin of April 16 said that 46 out of the state’s 75 districts did not have any COVID-19 related deaths on April 15. These districts include Barabanki, Azamgarh, Sonbhadra, Chandauli, Bijnor, Bahraich, Amroha, Shamli, Kannauj, Mau, Sambhal, Bhadohi, Eta and Hathras, among others.
Statewide, the total death count for Friday was 103, as per the government bulletin, and Lucknow alone recorded 35 of those deaths.
For the whole of April, the official bulletin recorded zero deaths on 13 days for Agra, 15 days for Bareilly, 14 days for Jhansi and 15 days for Ghaziabad. While the official data suggests these districts have not been hit hard by the coronavirus, reports of people complaining of not getting beds for their relatives suffering from COVID-19 and huge crowds at crematorium grounds in these districts tell a different tale.
‘Struggling to cremate the dead’ in Ghaziabad
Officially, Ghaziabad has reported only four “COVID-19-related deaths” so far in April. Yet workers at the Hindon cremation ground in the district say that they are struggling to cremate the huge number of bodies reaching there on an everyday basis. One worker told The Wire that more than 50 bodies of COVID-19 patients had arrived on Friday, at least 15 of them meant for the electric crematorium. On Saturday, he said that the situation remained the same, as close to 50 bodies were brought throughout the day. On both these days, curiously, the official bulletin released by the UP government maintained that there were zero deaths in the district.
Patients standing in line outside government hospitals is indicative of the situation getting out of control in Ghaziabad, as India has become the country with the highest number of daily recorded cases in the world. The United States is a distant second.
The grimness of the situation became all the more apparent when General V.K. Singh, a Union minister who represents Ghaziabad in the Lok Sabha, tweeted a call for help to the state administration on behalf of a COVID-19 patient in his constituency. His tweet, now deleted, read, “Please help us, my brother is in need of a hospital bed for COVID-19 treatment. Currently, we are not able to arrange for a bed in Ghaziabad.”
This ministerial cry for help raises obvious questions about the state of medical infrastructure in the Yogi-led UP government.
Virendra Singh Kushwaha, a resident of Ghaziabad and a lawyer, had come to the Hindon cremation ground to get his colleague’s father cremated on Saturday. He told The Wire, “After chasing multiple hospitals for four days, we finally managed to get him a bed in a hospital. Even after being admitted, he couldn’t get the required oxygen and other medical facilities. And he died.” He then went ahead to stand in the waiting line for the cremation. “We came here early in the morning, that is why we have got the eighth token,” he said.
The electric crematorium in the district is witnessing technical problems and hence COVID-19 bodies are being burnt using wood at the cremation ground. A worker at the cremation ground told The Wire, “If anybody wants to know the real number of COVID-19 deaths, they should visit here and see.”
Another person waiting in line complained that manual cremation takes time but since the electric gas-based system is not currently working, they have no choice but to opt for manual wood-based cremation.
While the official bulletin showed zero deaths in Ghaziabad district on April 16, Mahendra Singh Tanwar, municipal commissioner of the district told the media that close to 10 bodies had arrived for cremation at the ground.
While speaking to the media the next day, Tanwar said, “For regulation of COVID-19 bodies, we started the token system there. I personally visited the ground today and saw that everything was fine.”
Discrepancies in Bareilly data
In Bareilly, the state government’s bulletin reported only one death on April 15, due to Covid-19. In the whole of April, the state government has reported only seven deaths from the district. However, the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. The main cremation grounds in Bareilly – the City Shamshan Bhoomi and the Sanjay Nagar cremation ground – usually received about 20 bodies a day before the second wave of COVID-19 hit the country. The numbers now have shockingly doubled.
The crematorium ground committee says that they are not facing any issues during these cremations. “It takes three days for one pyre to get vacant after a cremation, but now that the dead are increasing, we are making special arrangements for them by making separate pyres on separate areas of the ground,” one committee member told The Wire.
The local health department data is also different. On April 16, the health department said that there were seven deaths in the past 24 hours, as compared to the zero deaths reported by the UP government bulletin.
On April 16, according to a worker at the City Shamshan Bhoomi, there were seven cremations at this ground alone as per the Covid-19 protocol. And there were seven more at the Sanjay Nagar cremation ground, as per their data. On April 17, the health department said that there were four COVID-19 related deaths in the district. However, according to the cremation ground records, there were seven cases of COVID-19 related deaths at the City Shamshan Bhoomi, and six at the Sanjay Nagar cremation ground.
“Because of a sudden rise of COVID-19 cases, the death toll has increased. The COVID-positive dead bodies are being cremated as per the guidelines. There is, so far, no scarcity of wood. However, its rates are increasing because some wood also has to be transported from Uttrakhand,” Mahendra Patel, general secretary at Sanjay Nagar cremation ground told The Wire.
There are close to 100 graveyards too in the district, including big ones such as the Bakarganj graveyard, Khad waali graveyard and Chaupla graveyard, the COVID-19 death records of which remain unreported. In April last year, Bareilly was declared “corona-free.”
Cremation accounts suggest dozens of unrecorded deaths in Agra
The situation is perhaps worse in Agra, for which the UP government bulletin has reported zero deaths on 13 days in the month of April. On April 17, while the UP government bulletin said there were only four COVID-19 related deaths, 48 dead bodies had turned up at the Tajganj cremation ground in Agra alone. Several workers at this cremation ground told The Wire that before the second wave, about 15 bodies would normally be cremated daily at the ground. Now, the numbers have doubled. “On 17 April, around 30 bodies were cremated using the wood based cremation, and another 30 using the gas based electric crematorium,” Rahul, a worker said.
Rahul further said that he has never seen so many bodies come in a single day. “It takes over an hour to cremate one body. But now, the situation has worsened,” he added.
According to the crematorium records, there were 18 electric and 18 normal cremations on April 12 and 13, 19 electric and 29 normal cremations on April 14, 24 electric and 26 normal cremations on April 15, 27 electric and 32 wood based cremations on April 16, and 30 electric and 38 wood based cremations on April 17. But the UP government bulletin has maintained that only two deaths occurred on April 12, three on April 17 and three on April 18. As for April 13 and 15, according to the UP government bulletin, there were no COVID-19 deaths.
Sanjiv Gupta, in charge of the electric crematorium at Tajganj ground said, “Many bodies are coming in these days, and hence people are having to wait.”
On Sunday, the district recorded 440 fresh COVID-19 cases. Currently, there are about 1,906 active cases in the district according to the health department.
Fourfold increase of number of dead in Jhansi
In Jhansi too, the official numbers do not reflect the real scenario. The number of deaths in the district have seen a sharp rise in the past week. There is almost a fourfold increase in the number of dead bodies coming in at different cremation grounds. Due to the lack of platforms to make pyres for all the bodies coming in, some bodies are being burnt on the floor itself.
The Unnao gate cremation ground alone witnessed eight cremations on Friday and seven on Saturday. Rajkumar, a worker at this cremation ground told The Wire that 2-3 bodies would turn up for cremation here on usual days. “But the numbers have suddenly risen,” he noted.
There are similar conditions at the Bada Gaon Gate cremation ground. There are 14 platforms for pyres here, all of which were full on Saturday. Nandanpura cremation ground was also full with 12 bodies burning at once. Due to the lack of platforms for pyres at the Bada Gaon Gate cremation ground as well as at Nandanpura cremation ground, some bodies here too are being burnt on the floor. At Shyam Chaupra cremation ground, 4-5 bodies are coming in everyday for cremation.
The increasing number of deaths in the district have caused alarm among the general public, but the administration says that only four people have died of COVID-19 in the past week. The UP government bulletin has recorded just seven deaths for the district in April so far.
Pradeep Jain Aditya, former Union minister from the Congress and a former MP of the Jhansi constituency says that there is a big “conspiracy” by the government to hide the real COVID-19 death toll. “No data of people dying in nursing homes is coming out, the real data is also being hidden,” he added.
Between April 10 and 17 April, there were 4,024 COVID-19 positive cases in the district and the official numbers say that five people have died.
The municipal commissioner of Jhansi, Avnish Rai, is down with COVID-19. In his absence, The Wire contacted Shadab Aslam, additional municipal commissioner, who said that no records of COVID-19 deaths are available with him.
An official of the Maharani Laxmibai Medical College Hospital of Jhansi also confirmed to The Wire on condition of anonymity that there is a discrepancy in the numbers being reported by the state government.
Meanwhile, Sunday’s UP government bulletin has reported a total of 129 COVID-19 related deaths in the state.