A scene of a building after the Bhuj earthquake of January 26, 2001 (Image credit: Scroll.in)

Where were the bodies of Maharashtra, Gujarat quakes’ victims cremated, buried?

The photographs/videos of bodies piling up outside crematoriums at various places across India being repeatedly highlighted by the television and YouTube channels threw me back to the memory lane. I recall several natural disasters in which many thousands or even lakhs of souls perished within a matter of seconds. I do not remember to have come across any story or photograph of bodies waiting for cremation or burial after the earthquakes in Maharashtra and Gujarat. In fact, in the 35 years of my journalistic career and 45 years since I started reading newspapers, I have never read any story of bodies waiting for the last rites in such a way as now.

For example, 10,000 people died in Latur (Maharashtra) earthquake of September 30, 1993 and over 25,000 in Bhuj (Gujarat) on January 26,2001. While in Latur and neighbouring Osmanabad district of Maharashtra, 52 villages were flattened in a powerful tremor and aftershocks which lasted just for a few seconds and that too when the people were fast asleep, in Gujarat one million people were rendered homeless by the devastation. Hundreds died in Ahmedabad alone which is far away from the epicentre in Bhuj, Kutch.

It can be argued that those two tragedies were confined to a big area in just two states. But this is also a fact that the natural disasters were not only confined to the loss of lives but caused widespread destruction and left lakhs of people injured. There were hardly any people left to take the wounded and maimed to hospitals. In fact, even many hospitals got destroyed and doctors and para-medic staff lost their lives too.

The rescue, relief and rehabilitation challenge were definitely much more difficult. Mind it, India and the world had witnessed even more destructive natural disasters and the people have coped up with them. Take the examples of Uttarkashi cloudburst of June 16, 2013 or Kosi deluge of August 17, 2008, thousands of people were swept away leaving relatively few bodies behind for the last rites.

No doubt cremating or burying bodies is a problem during natural disasters and wars, especially during bombardment in civilian areas, in which thousands die in a matter of minutes. Hardly any time in the past the issue has been so widely highlighted by the electronic and to some extent print media as now.

The Gujarat earthquake of 2001 took place after the advent of television channels yet journalists confined themselves to the stories on the magnitude of destruction, rescue works and later on relief and rehabilitation task.  Brief mention of performing last rites might have been mentioned in the media then.  So far the accusation of under-reporting of the deaths is concerned, this charge was levelled in the case of Latur and Bhuj earthquakes and all other natural disasters.

Take the case of Tangshan earthquake of July 28, 1976 when officially 2.42 lakh people perished. But the western media then put the toll at 700,000. Even Britannica.com puts the unofficial toll at 6.55 lakh.

This is one of the largest death tolls in recorded history as Tangshan was then considered as the third largest city of China after Shanghai and Beijing. Just imagine how the last rites would have been performed.

The Indonesian tsunami of 2004 also killed a couple of lakhs, but the problem with it was that many bodies were swept away and could not be counted. Similar was the case with Fukushima disaster of March 11, 2011 in which between 16,000 and 19,000 people died.

Cyclones on the coasts of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Bangladesh too have led to the death of unaccounted number of people because of the same reason (many were swept away). So, there was hardly any question of under-reporting.

It can be argued that doing story on bodies in hospitals due to corona may be much easier than during a natural disaster or war. Perhaps it sells more, even if the psychological cost may be much higher.

Soroor Ahmed is a senior journalist based in Patna. The views expressed are personal.

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