Across 1,000 villages, there are no rotting corpses in hospital corridors, no stench from bloated blue skin, no bandaged and bloodied children, no wailing relatives. No mass funerals.
And across the country, no candlelight vigils, no prayers at school assemblies, no outpouring of compassion. Some work is also getting done on the side ahead of national elections — taxpayer-paid relief camps run by the Steel Authority of India Limited decorated with banners carrying the election symbol of minister Ram Vilas Paswan.
What a neat, convenient tragedy it has been.
The government has confirmed the deaths of only 23 people so far. But innumerable fatalities are being reported in camp after camp, after the Kosi sheared through Bihar’s countryside like a giant lawnmower.
Entire villages have vanished. It is a catastrophe of invisible deaths, of bodies swept away by the animal force of the tide — dozens, even a few hundred kilometres away by a river that terrifyingly changed its course up to 100 kilometres from its normal path.
“As the water is going down, bodies are slowly being found. Many were washed away, but many were stuck or crushed under walls and in bushes or railway tracks. The deaths are in thousands — or even a lakh,” said Anshu Gupta, who heads the voluntary group Goonj and has been travelling deep into cut-off villages.
“We’ve become so immune as a nation — I think this country wakes up to the pain of the poor only when it sees mountains of their dead bodies,” said Radhey Shyam Sharma, a teacher doing relief work in Purnia despite losing his village home.
Nervously clutching steel glasses and bowls, hungry children lined up in the distance for the highlight of their day — the milk distribution.
People crowd around the reporter. Someone touches his feet. With dozens crushing around him, it is an old, shrivelled man in a torn kurta, squatting on the ground, folding his hands with tear-laced eyes.
“Babuji, my son….”
In the evening, sitting in a dimly lit hotel room with mosquitoes buzzing around him, an officer of the National Disaster Response Force utters his worst fears. “The number of dead might be hundreds of times the number of bodies found. Entire villages have vanished,” he says, declining to be named.
“We may never really know how many people died here.”
For days, it was a cruel exercise.
“Villagers begged us come with them to their villages and rescue people. So we went,” said the officer, who directs boat movements to different areas every morning. "But in several cases when we reached there, the guide just looked around flabbergasted. He could not find the village. It had completely disappeared. There would be a lot of crying and mourning right there."
The mourners are telling their stories in the cramped and anxiety-struck relief camps. They have seen people scooped away by the brutal current; they have seen helpless hands flail and vanish under water.
“I saw 150 people die, with my own eyes,” says Hiranand Poddar, 40, standing at a relief camp in Purnia town.
A hundred and fifty?
“I am not exaggerating. People were walking briskly; the water came and just swept them away. They slammed against trees, against electricity poles, wherever the water took them,” Poddar says. “I saw so much death.”
He had time on his hands. Poddar and 80 other people camped for 10 days on his roof in the Murliganj area. They ate powdered gram and dried rice. They prayed.
Those who did not lose family members lost cattle, a loss that strikes at the heart of their livelihood in a region where only animals plough the fields. Ten lakh cattle are dead.
Maheshwar Yadav had a more heart-wrenching decision to make in his Dumariya village. He was walking out with his father on one arm, wife on the other, when the father slipped away and died.
And as they escaped, he could not bear the sight of his four buffalos and two ox being tossed and smashed around by the water.
“I finally went and cut their ropes,” Yadav said.