Wading through floodwaters swirling around his chest, Umeshchandra Choudhary refused to get onto the boat of a national rescue team making its final trip by his village in north Bihar's flood-hit Madhepura district on a recent afternoon. "I have 10 cattle with me. How do I leave them and go?", he asked the rescuers, their masks blocking out the stench of dead livestock rising from the waters.
On the morning of 22 August, as a flooded Kosi river's waters tore through their village, Umeshchandra's family rushed with their 11 animals to the only dry spot in sight - an irrigation canal.
Three weeks on, the anxious farmer who has been surviving on erratic handouts of flattened rice by relief boats informed the team, "This morning, one bull has died of starvation. I do not have the means to feed the rest. It is hard to explain…it is almost like watching family members die."
At the village of Jorgam, Omprakash Yadav climbed onto the boat, after holding out for three weeks on a marooned canal in a bid to stay with his livestock, and ensure they stay alive.
Omprakash said, "I have sold my last remaining two cows today morning for Rs 2000, 1/12th of their price, to a vyapaari (trader) touring villages on a boat as I no longer have anything to feed them." He said, "A natural disaster has washed my home away and destroyed my standing rice crop. But now the government's neglect is taking away my only remaining economic asset. Nobody is thinking about our animals."
Pashudhan, as villagers fondly call their cattle, is the mainstay with foodcrop agriculture of the family economy in this desperately poor and populated stretch of northern Bihar. As a great flood submerged close to 1000 villages last month, thousands of shocked families watched their cattle being swept away. Others rushed with their animals to patches of dry spots.
Three weeks on, scores of villagers like Umeshchandra refuse to move out of their flooded villages into relief camps for fear of their cattle dying, while others must resort to distress sale to economically better-off traders who are cashing in on their tragedy.
The government says it has no estimate of livestock deaths, but is distributing fodder to animals in relief camps, and those trapped in villages via 2000 boats deployed across five districts.
But in this stretch spanning submerged villages of two flooded districts, none were in evidence. Instead, scenes of crows feeding on dead carcasses were common, with no urgency by local officials to prevent more from dying.
The state's Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi who is also the Animal Husbandry Minister explained to HT, "I have issued instructions. Help might not have reached everywhere." He could not give a timeframe, he said, for his officials to reach villages. "The scale of Kosi's tragedy is so huge, even God cannot give a timeframe."
Back on the waters, Nityanand Joshi, a tireless NDRF jawan who was among the first rescuers to be deployed at the disaster site 17 days ago, pointed to the few remaining cattle standing along a marooned canal and said the deaths were surely preventable: "Animals packed the stretch when we began our operation to rescue villagers. Today there are just a handful. Our rescue operation for villagers is over, and the administration could have given us fodder stocks to distribute as relief. Instead, I see animals dying each day as I cross these waters."
Modi has also announced a Rs 10,000 compensation to every family as compensation for each cattle death. "Evacuation of animals", he said, "is not an option. It is too cumbersome and too expensive." (see BOX)
It was the only option for Mohammed Azim and Mohammed Hasan on Sunday. They borrowed Rs 1400 from a moneylender to hire a private wooden row boat to transfer 4 cows and 10 goats from their submerged village to a dry area in the adjoining district over 20 kilometres away. Hasan said, "They are our last possessions. If we do not move them now, they will starve to death."
Back on Joshi's rescue boat, Vidyanand and Kanika Paswan clutching their three young children and a single sack of grain and clothes clambered on. They had spent the past 25 days and nights on the terrace of a one-storey house in their submerged village. As the boat sped away from their village, they all broke down. Kanika sobbed, "My aged father is still back in the village. We have 7 cows, and he insisted he could not abandon them."