80 bodies found floating in India's Ganges: Official

LUCKNOW (AFP) - Around 80 bodies have been found floating in a stream of India's Ganges, sparking renewed concerns on Wednesday about the health of the sacred river where millions of Hindus cremate their dead, an official said.

The bodies were discovered in a shallow tributary of the Ganges near a cremation area in the northern state of Utter Pradesh, police and a local official said.

Television footage showed dogs and birds feeding on the bloated and decaying bodies floating in the stream, whose waters are thought to have receded recently.

An official estimated that 80 bodies have so far been retrieved but warn the figure may rise.

"There could be around 100 bodies but we are yet to get an exact number," district magistrate Saumya Agarwal told AFP by phone from Unnao district.

"It seems that as the water level has receded in the river, these bodies have surfaced.

"We are trying to figure out the reason. We have sent a team of doctors on the spot to collect the samples from bodies to investigate the case," she added.

Police inspector general Satish Ganesh said the bodies were probably given river burials upstream at a cremation area known as Pariyar Ghat before becoming stranded in shallow water.

Millions of Hindus practice open-air cremation, with the ashes of loves ones scattered in the revered but heavily polluted river.

The Hindu nationalist national government of Mr Narendra Modi has vowed to clean up the river.

Poor families who cannot afford enough wood and other materials for the burning ceremony sometimes place the bodies in the water, while others are not cremated entirely.

The bodies of some holy men are also placed in the river instead of being cremated, in accordance with tradition.

But the discovery of so many bodies in one place has sparked environmental and health concerns.

An activist said damming - including in the upper reaches of the Ganges basin - meant there was not enough water to flush the bodies downstream and help with their breakdown.

"The problem is that there is not enough river flow that is being maintained for the Ganga river," said Ms Mallika Bhanot of the non-profit Ganga Ahvaan, which is working to preserve the river.

"These traditions (of placing the dead in the river) are actually becoming a health hazard with the dead bodies rotting instead of flowing off in the river," she told CNN-IBN news channel.

"Earlier, it used to flow into the river and the fishes and everything used to feed on it and it was something that was going (on) harmoniously (with nature)."

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