The National Green Tribunal recently sought reports from the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar about the number of human corpses found floating on the river Ganga as well as the bodies that were buried in the river bed in the two states during the period of before the COVID-19 pandemic till March 31 this year.
A Bench of Justice Arun Kumar Tyagi and expert member Dr Afroz Ahmad was adjudicating upon an application moved by journalist Sanjay Sharma in public interest seeking directions to ensure that proper protocols were followed for the disposal of bodies infected by COVID, and seeking urgent intervention and directions from the Tribunal for the protection of environment and ecology.
In the application, it was submitted that after being hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, nationwide lockdowns were imposed to curb the spread of the virus and various precautionary and safety measures were announced to check the contagion of the Covid-19 virus. In view of the detrimental effects an infected human corpse could have on the environment and human lives, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had issued Standard Operating Procedure titled "COVID-19: Guidelines on Dead Body Management".
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in view of the rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and keeping in view the large number of deaths because of the pandemic and challenges in the management of the dead bodies, issued an "Advisory for Upholding the Dignity and Protecting the Rights of the Dead".
Further, as per the press release issued by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) the Centre had directed States to prevent the dumping of dead bodies in Ganga and focus on their safe disposal and providing support for ensuring dignified cremation. The press release also referred to steps taken to prevent dumping of dead bodies in rivers and burying of dead bodies in the sand along the river, launching of suitable awareness generation program and extending financial support for cremation.
However, the applicant claimed that the same has remained on paper without implementation.
While referring to news reports regarding Covid-19 infected dead bodies being dumped in the river Ganga and also being buried along the river, the applicant submitted that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, and it is uncertain when it will resurrect – despite vaccination. The issue of throwing dead bodies in the river needs to be tackled from the environmental point of view and standing directions need to be issued and followed.
In respect of COVID, the situation in the rural parts of India continues to be grim where the RT- PCR tests are at a bare minimum and poverty is forcing people with limited means to float the corpses of their family members in rivers or to bury them near the river beds. Even though now mortality has gone down, preventive and curative steps are required to be taken to avoid and manage such a situation in the future. Since rotting bodies may have had an impact on the health of those living along the rivers, curative steps are required to be taken for their complete health check-up and proper treatment.
In view of the averments made in the application, the Tribunal deemed it appropriate to seek reports from the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) and Additional Chief Secretary/Principal Secretary (Health), Governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively to submit factual verification reports on the following aspects:
(i) How many dead bodies were documented/found (ai) to have been floating in river Ganga and (b) to have been buried on the river bed in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar before Covid 19 in the years 2018 and 2019 and after Covid 19 in the years 2020, 2021 and till 31.03.2022?
(ii) In how many cases financial support was extended by the Governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively for the cremation funeral or burial of the dead bodies?
(iii) What steps were taken for creating public awareness and promoting public participation in preventing the floating of dead bodies in the river Ganga or their burial in or near the river bed?
(iv) Whether any criminal case was registered and any prosecution was launched against any person for violation of the guidelines for the management of dead bodies covid infected or otherwise?
(v) Whether there was any violation of environmental norms and, if so, the details of the remedial measures taken may be furnished?
Case Title: Sanjay Sharma v. Union of India