The rescuer had one last food packet in his hands, and the entire village was hungry.
As Commandant Daniel Adhikari watched, a desperate woman leaped into the waters to grab it. But another man jumped in as well, the two fighting over the bag as rescuers watched helplessly in Lakhipur village in Bihar’s Madhepura district.
“It was heartrending. There has been so much suffering. We tried to do all we could,” said Robinson.
Wading through tragedy, these are the unsung heroes of Bihar’s unprecedented disaster. Sunburnt, blistered and crushed by exhaustion, just 700-odd men from the National Disaster Response Force saved more than 100,000 lives on 100 motorboats on their first major assignment.
And the scale of the high-risk challenge played out as an HT reporter travelled deep into the disaster zone on an NDRF motorboat. Roads, rail tracks, culverts, homes, farms — all were invisible under water.
Driven mostly by gut feel and courage, the men negotiated invisible meandering tracks through the water that only they seemed to know, even as locals got confused and looked for villages that had vanished. NDRF men had strung red cloth from trees to mark the danger spots to avoid.
The NDRF, formed in 2006 after the tsunami as a crack disaster relief force, was the first to reach the disaster zone on the August 20, when state government officials were just about realising the enormity of the crisis. Army and navy teams were asked to join the rescue effort much later.
“Normally, the state government requisitions central forces but the NDRF can rush to the spot without being asked — and we did,” said K.M.Singh, member of the National Disaster Management Authority, to which the NDRF reports. “The golden hour after disaster is crucial.”
Out there, it was war. It was an unimaginable disaster.
In the worst flooding in modern Indian history, the Kosi had changed its course in an event that had last happened more than two centuries ago. In some places, the river had moved 100 kilometres away from its original course. The raging river itself was 32 kilometres wide.
The NDRF had 25 inflatable horsepower motorboats made of fibre, with the capacity to carry 2,000 pounds (900 kg) of weight.
More than 1 lakh acres — nearly the size of Delhi state – was under water often as high as 12 feet to 14 feet. Some 10 lakh people were estimated to be perched on rooftops.
“There would be thousands of people scrambling to get on to the boats. People even jumped from roofs to get on boats – we were lucky there were no injuries,” said an NDRF officer, declining to be named.
“NDRF did a marvellous job. Especially in the initial crucial days, they rescued everybody on a large scale. The state government did not have motorized boats, so their help was crucial,” said Deputy Inspector-General of Police Sunil Kumar Jha. “The NDRF jawans took a lot of risk and rescued thousands of people every day.”
Village politics played out. The affluent tried to hijack the relief and guide the rescue to their families and friends.
In one village, the local bully wanted his people to go first on the rescue boat. The NDRF soldier would have none of it, giving priority to marooned children. So the bully hit the soldier across the back of his head, leaving him badly bruised.
By two weeks later though, the situation transformed. The water receded. Thieves on wooden country boats began lurking around in villages, stealing from abandoned homes. Hundreds of thousands of villagers began to refuse to be evacuated.
And many false alarms followed as people began to use rescue boats as ferries.
"A man told us a woman was in labour, so we rushed to the village, and walked in two kilometres in waist deep water,” said Dr. Shiva Kumar of the NDRF. “When we reached there, we saw the woman was only six months pregnant.”