India holds mass cremation of flood victims to stem disease

NEW DELHI — Indian authorities are due to hold a mass cremation ceremony on Tuesday to dispose of the corpses of hundreds of flood victims still lying in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand.

Another 127 bodies have been recovered since Monday from the area around the ruined Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath, officials told India's Daily News & Analysis newspaper, taking the death toll to 807. Most if not all of the corpses have been lying in the open for nine days, since a flash flood destroyed everything but the temple itself on June 16.

As bad weather hampers efforts to rescue survivors, removing bodies from the site is not possible, and delaying their disposal to allow for the identification and individual cremation of the victims would leave survivors in the area vulnerable to an outbreak of disease, the Times of India cited local officials as saying. 

DNA samples will be taken and the bodies will be videotaped before they are cremated, so that family members can confirm the identity of the victims at a later date.

Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde consulted high-ranking Hindu priests to determine whether a mass cremation would pollute the Kedarnath temple—a 1200-year-old structure that attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims to the town each year.

According to the religious experts, as long as the cremation ceremony is performed in keeping with Hindu practices, the temple will not be harmed.

That means not only that various religious rites must be performed, but also that more than 30,000 pounds of lumber must be brought up to the cremation site by helicopter. Moreover, before many of the dead can be cremated, they must be dug out from under silt and destroyed buildings, a process that experts said could take a week or more.

On Tuesday, the Uttarakhand government told the Supreme Court that the evacuation of people stranded by the floods would be completed within 72 hours.

Air force helicopters, Indian army troops and other rescue workers have evacuated thousands of people per day since the relief effort began. Initially, estimates pegged the number of stranded at around 70,000 people.

It's feared the final death toll will stand at over 5,000, according to Disaster Management Minister Yashpal Arya.