Three weeks after the heavy rains and subsequent flash floods killed hundreds and left several thousand missing in Uttarakhand, bodies are being fished out of rivers in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
The toll in the heavy rain and flash floods of June 15 to 17 that ravaged Uttarakhand, setting off landslides and washing away pilgrims and mules and other cattle into the rivers is still not accurately estimated.
In the past fortnight, more than 80 bodies have been recovered from different districts of Uttar Pradesh.
Officials fear that more bodies might be washed down in the strong currents, as the rivers are still in spate. In the last two days, as it rained heavily again, over a dozen bodies flowed down the rivers into Uttar Pradesh.
Police officials told IANS that bodies were recovered at Allahabad, Meerut, Bijnore, Moradabad, Narora and Muzaffarnagar.
"Most of the bodies are in bad shape, eaten up by aquatic animals and barely recognisable," a senior official said, adding that traces of clothing that might still have stuck to the bodies are the only means of identifying the gender, as the bodies themselves are mostly beyond recognition.
Uttar Pradesh Police, who posted a special unit in Uttarakhand at the peak of the disaster, have so far recovered 30 bodies from near Haridwar, of which 29 were cremated after preserving DNA samples in the form of hair, teeth and bone pieces.
"We are preserving the DNA, but we do not know what to do with it. We await guidelines from the top," said a doctor of the district hospital in Haridwar.
Some clothes and accessories like wrist watches and wallets have been recovered. Job identity cards have also come floating down the river, said a member of the Seva Samiti in Haridwar, who had aided the police effort to retrieve bodies from the Ganga there.
"Some of the bodies recovered here (at Haridwar) were not in very bad condition, and we have taken photographs and stored personal belongings, just in case someone turns up later to claim them," said a policeman who regretted that bodies further downstream were in even worse condition.
Inspector general of police (Law and Order) RK Vishwakarma conceded that the task was mammoth, and said that bodies were recovered from Pilibhit, Bulandshahr, Baghpat, Sambhal and Hapur as well.
"Most of the rivers in western Uttar Pradesh flow into the state from Uttarakhand, and are carrying a large number of bodies," he said, adding that police are maintaining a vigil near the river and the floating dead are being retrieved.
Under the law, authorities must keep the bodies for some time, in case relatives later claim them. But in these cases, owing to the advanced state of decay, policemen have been engaged in performing the last rites and consigning the bodies to the flames, with the help of local non-government organisations.
"At the district level, we have neither the space nor the know-how to preserve such a large number of bodies, and we cannot help but dispose them of after keeping DNA samples," an official posted in a western UP district said.
From Meja Manda, Jhoosi and Saidabad areas of Allahabad, 17 bodies have so far been recovered. Thirteen bodies were found in the Ganga near Narora barrage, Anoopshahr and Garh Mukteshwar on the outskirts of Ghaziabad.
The bodies, heavy with silt, are sometimes reduced to skeletons when recovered, an official said, adding that all the bodies were being photographed. Local newspapers will receive copies of the photographs for publication, in the hope that surviving kin may recognise the dead.
"It is a colossal tragedy. By keeping the belongings and photographs of the dead, at least those who are still searching for their missing loved ones in Uttarakhand may be able to end their search," the official said, adding that there were those still clinging to hope and doing the rounds of the base camps where rescue choppers flew in people evacuated from the Kedarnath Valley and nearby areas.
The police fear that once the rivers recede, even more bodies may be found lying strewn in the silt.
The Uttarakhand government Sunday put the number of those still missing at 4,700.