Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government letter seen by Reuters says, in the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice - which the letter said may stem from poverty and fear of the disease in remote areas.
Images of corpses drifting down the Ganges, a river considered holy in Hinduism, have shocked India, a country reeling under the world's worst surge in COVID-19 infections.
Although media reports have linked the recent increase in bodies found floating in the river and its tributaries to the pandemic, India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 240 million people, has until now not publicly revealed the cause of the deaths.
"The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to COVID-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of as per proper rituals," a senior state official, Manoj Kumar Singh, said in a letter dated May 14 to district heads that was reviewed by Reuters.
"As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places."
Singh was not immediately reachable for comment.
The acknowledgment comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday (local time) called on officials to step up surveillance and strengthen healthcare resources in rural areas as the virus continues to spread rapidly.
Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil or Pakistan, has been badly hit by India’s dramatic second surge in infections. Health experts say many cases are now going undetected in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, where most of its people live.
In the memo to district heads, Singh said a lack of funds to buy materials like firewood for cremation, religious beliefs in some communities, and families abandoning victims for fear of the disease were among the likely reasons for the surge in body dumpings.
He asked village-level officials to ensure no corpses are thrown into water and said the state government would pay poor families of the dead 5000 rupees ($68) each to cremate or bury bodies. The state has also asked police to patrol rivers to stop the practice.
India has been officially reporting around 4000 deaths each day from the disease for nearly two weeks, but health experts say the toll is likely much higher due to poor testing in rural areas and other factors.
The jump in deaths has in many places led to backlogs at crematoriums and multiplied the cost of last rites.
Uttar Pradesh spokesman Navneet Sehgal on Saturday denied local media reports that as many as 2000 corpses of potential COVID-19 victims had been recovered from rivers in the state and neighbouring Bihar in recent days.
"We keep recovering 10 to 20 bodies every now and then," Sehgal told Reuters, adding that some riverside villages did not cremate their dead due to Hindu traditions during some periods of religious significance.
Bihar officials did not respond to requests for comment.