The second COVID wave hit India particularly hard in these last months. While the situation was said to be under control in February 2021, the country reached maximum peak due to relaxed COVID practices, the sluggish acts coming from the central government and India’s collapsed healthcare system. All this is leading to place the bodies of the dead into the Ganges River. This article explains therefore, the current scenario of what inhabitants of India are going through and what international organisations such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) are calling for to defend the dignity of the deceased. It culminates by outlining some of the recommendations the NHRC considers necessary to avoid this tragic situation based on the latest reports in which more than 3 lakh cases have been registered in the last three weeks. With more than 3,00,000 dead and approximately 30 million having been infected of coronavirus, India has broken records in terms of numbers since the onset of the pandemic. All this, coupled with a shortage of wood for cremations, the rising costs associated with funerals and the collapse of hospitals due to the lack of basic medical supplies have forced some families to bury their relatives in rudimentary manners (i.e., massive incinerations or bodies thrown into the river). Thus, hundreds of corpses identified as COVID 19 victims by national authorities have washed up on the banks of the Ganges in the last days. Given this situation, some locals complain arguing that “private hospitals are looting people. Ordinary people run out of money to pay a priest and spend more on cremation on the riverbank [and] they are asking for about US$27 just to get the corpse out of the ambulance”. However, not only does this dumping of dead bodies constitute a violation to the right of the dead, but it also constitutes a violation of the guidelines of the National Mission for Clean Ganga and where under no right “should it have been polluted by such an inhumane and indecent act either of an individual or of States itself”. A statement supported by the scientific community has already warned of the serious risks posed by the polluted water of the Ganges River and its tributaries as they are key sources of drinking water for many villages, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Concerning this situation, the NHRC called on the 14th of May 2021 for enactment of specific legislation to defend the dignity of the dead establishing that it is the duty of the States to protect the rights of the deceased and complained that “even if these dead bodies were not of covid-victims, then such practice are shameful to the society as a whole as that amounts to violation of human rights of even deceased persons”.


The NHCR therefore proposed that since “there is no specific law in India for protecting the rights of the dead, the courts have reiterated to uphold the dignity and protect the rights of the dead”. Facing the legal barrier posed by the non-existence of laws protecting the rights of the deceased, the NHRC stated that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution whereby “no person shall be deprived of his/her life or personal liberty except in accordance with a procedure established by law” extended not only to living persons but also to the dead. In the same vein, the NHRC noted the underlying international framework where human dignity is placed at the core of all international human rights law, which is as follows: – Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 16  II paragraph considers that States “should ensure that graves are respected […] in such a way that they can always be recognized” and Article 130 (1) by which “as far as military consideration allows, each party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken to protect the killed against ill treatments”; – Cairo declaration on Human Rights in Islam, Article 3 (a) states that “[i]n the event of the use of force and in case of armed conflict-it is prohibited to mutilate dead bodies”; – UN Commission on Human Rights in a Resolution adopted in 2005, underlines the importance of dignified handling of human remains including the respect for the needs of families; and – The UN’s Inter Agency Standing Committee’s Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters which recommends that appropriate measures “should allow for the possibility of recovery of human remains for future identification and reburial if required”. Consequently, the NHCR also referred to some national court rulings to uphold the dignity of those who passed away such as: – Parmanand Katara v. Union of India 1989 case recognized that the right to life, fair treatment and dignity, extend not only to a living person but also to his dead body; – P. Rathinam v. Union of India 1994 case established that the ambit of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution was widened to include the dignity of a person; – Sethu Raja v. Chief Secretary 2007 where the right to dignity was also extended to a deceased person in the case of S. in which the Madras High Court directed the Government authorities to bring the dead body from Malaysia, so that burial could take place at home according to traditions and customs. Finally, the human rights body proposed, among other things, to enact specific legislation to protect the rights of the dead; set-up temporary crematoriums; sensitize and raise awareness among the staff working in crematoriums; minimizing contact with the corpse during the last rites; encourage the use of electric crematoriums instead of burning pyres; proper identification and information; and last but not least, protect those who are handling dead bodies as a way to compensate their work. In any case, the NHRC ultimately condemns mass burials and/or cremations that constitute a clear violation of the right to dignity of the dead and the irresponsibility of the central administration and States which “have failed to provide facilities for burial or cremation of bodies and also failed to protect the Ganga”.

By Candela Fernández Gil-Delgado

Legal Assistant at Finabel - European Army Interoperability Centre, Brussels.

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