People in Northern India are being urged not to bury their loved ones in shallow graves on the banks of the Ganges river as hundreds of bodies were found.
On Friday, rains exposed the cloth coverings of bodies buried in shallow sand graves on a wide, flat riverbank in Prayagraj, a city in Uttar Pradesh state.
While officials say the riverside burials have taken place for decades, the sheer numbers in the shadow of the pandemic are focusing more attention on the practice.
Vijay Kumar, a 30-year-old Buddhist, and his family gathered on Sunday to bury his 75-year-old mother who, he said, died of a heart condition.
He said his religion allows both cremation and burial, and he chose the latter.
Government denies recovery of 1000 corpses
A state government spokesman on Sunday denied local media reports more than 1000 corpses of COVID-19 victims were recovered from rivers in the past two weeks.
K.P. Singh, a senior police officer, said authorities had earmarked a cremation ground on the Prayagraj riverbank for those who died of COVID-19, and police were no longer allowing any burials on the riverfront.
"We have given instructions not to bury (the dead) there, either they bury them in their respective villages or in cremation grounds," he told The Associated Press.
On Saturday, an Associated Press photojournalist estimated there were at least 300 shallow riverside graves on a sand bar near near Prayagraj.
Each grave was covered by an orange, yellow or reddish cloth and appeared laid out in the same direction.
Health authorities last week retrieved 71 bodies that washed up on a Ganges River bank in neighbouring Bihar state.
Authorities performed post-mortems but said they could not confirm the cause of death due to decomposition.
Bodies washed up in the Ganges are decomposed
Although media have linked the recent increase in the numbers of such bodies to the pandemic, the 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 May 14 letter to district heads that was reviewed by Reuters.
"As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places."
Mr Singh confirmed the letter to Reuters but said autopsies on four to five bodies in the state's district of Ghazipur had not revealed virus infection.
"The bodies are decomposed, so I am not sure in this state it can be found out about corona positive," he said in a text message.
India's two big states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with nearly 358 million people in total, are among the worst hit in the virus surge sweeping through the country with devastating death tolls.
Hapless villagers have been rushing the sick to nearby towns and cities for treatment, many of them dying on the way, victims of India's crumbling health care.
The Health Ministry on Sunday reported 311,170 confirmed cases in the past 24 hours, down from 326,098 on Saturday.
It also reported 4,077 additional deaths, taking the total fatalities to 270,284.
Both figures are almost certainly a vast undercount, experts say.
with AP and Reuters
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