Om Gaur is in the middle of the most heart-wrenching story of his career as a journalist.
Earlier this month, Gaur — the national editor at Dainik Bhaskar, one of the world’s biggest-selling newspapers — got a tip that dead bodies had been spotted floating in the Ganges River in Bihar, a state in eastern India.
Given how decomposed the corpses were, officials in Bihar suspected they had come from further upstream — possibly from Uttar Pradesh, the highly populated state where Gaur is based. So he sent a team of 30 reporters to over 27 districts to investigate.
After hours of searching, the team found more than 2,000 bodies floating or buried along a 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) stretch of the Ganges, which is considered a holy river to most Hindus. Dainik Bhaskar, one of India’s biggest Hindi-language newspapers, published its story last week with the headline, “Ganga is ashamed.”
“I have never seen anything like this in my 35-year-long career,” Gaur told CNN Business.
For weeks, India has been engulfed by a brutal second wave of Covid-19 infections, with millions of new cases. There have been nearly 300,000 Covid-related deaths recorded by the Health Ministry since the pandemic began, even though the actual figure is likely much higher.
While the human toll of the disease has been immense, journalists like Gaur are not just covering the tragedy of the situation. They’re also fighting for transparency and accountability from a government that has tried to clamp down on criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his handling of the pandemic.
As the crisis unfolded, Modi was initially slammed by the international press for not doing enough to prevent the catastrophe, and for downplaying the number of fatalities. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who is a close ally of Modi, has been accused of intimidating citizens and journalists reporting on oxygen shortages in the state. New Delhi has even asked Twitter to remove tweets about Covid-19, including some that were critical of Modi.
“People have been telling me not to fight with the administration,” said Gaur, who has not only written about alleged data-fudging by the administration, but has also criticized the authorities for the insensitive manner in which the uncovered bodies were finally cremated. The state has now started patrolling the river, to prevent dumping of bodies.
“State officials have tried to stop our coverage several times in the past few days, and have even threatened us with a court case,” he added.
Since that first article, his paper has continued to count bodies in the Ganges and hold politicians accountable for the crisis — not just in Uttar Pradesh, but in other parts of India as well.
The spiraling crisis has overwhelmed India’s health care system in several states. Beds, oxygen and medical workers are in short supply. Some patients are dying in waiting rooms or outside overflowing clinics. At cremation grounds, bodies are piling up faster than workers can build new pyres. While the situation is improving in bigger cities now, rural parts of the country might continue to struggle.
Critics of the government — from opposition politicians and judges to regular citizens and even a prestigious medical journal — say that despite the scale of the tragedy, the country’s leaders have focused more on image management rather than tackling the disaster. The government, meanwhile, has said that it wants to stop individuals from spreading fake or misleading information.
To get the real story, many media outlets have increasingly been doing some traditional shoe-leather journalism.
This reporting has surprised many readers: India’s vast media have become increasingly subservient to Modi’s government since the Hindu nationalist was first elected Prime Minister seven years ago. The ruling party has used a range of tactics, ranging from forcing advertisers to cut off outlets that are critical of its policies to shutting down channels, to ensure the press is reshaped into its cheerleader.
“Mainstream media, particularly broadcast media, really glosses over the Modi government’s failures, even while appearing neutral,” said Abhinandan Sekhri, CEO of Newslaundry, an award-winning independent news website that focuses on media and journalism.
But papers like Dainik Bhaskar “have not pulled their punches and have really gone after the government” with their coverage of the pandemic, even as some prominent TV channels remain as “sycophantic as ever,” he added.
In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, three of the top local language newspapers — Sandesh, Divya Bhaskar and Gujarat Samachar — have consistently questioned the official statistics on the second wave through their coverage.
Divya Bhaskar reported in mid-May that nearly 124,000 death certificates had been issued in the prior 71 days in Gujarat, about 66,000 more than during the same period last year. The state government reported that only 4,218 were related to Covid. Most recent deaths have been attributed to underlying conditions or co-morbidities, Divya Bhaskar said, citing doctors and families of victims.
The newspaper said its journalists dug out the data by going to districts and municipal corporations.
Similarly, Sandesh, a Gujarati newspaper that dates back nearly a century, has been sending its reporters to mortuaries, hospitals and crematoriums to count the dead so the paper can publish daily figures. And, on May 9, the Gujarat Samachar newspaper criticized a decision by the Modi government to press ahead with a planned $2.8 billion renovation of Parliament, with the headline: “Even as people are fighting life-and-death situations, public servant becomes dictator.”