As the first of 23 buses provided by the Bihar government rolls out of the Nepalese capital with 62 survivors of last week’s earthquake, chants of “Pashupatinath Baba Ki Jai” and “Bajrang Bali Ki Jai” rent the air as the passengers invoke the two common deities.
They are bound for home for now, but most of the survivors from Bihar vow they will return to what is their ‘karmabhoomi’. This decision is largely motivated by a desire to get their hands on held-up payments since most of them are daily wage workers.
As the bus moves out of the Tilganga Bridge bus terminal in Kathmandu and begins the 430-km journey to Raxaul in Bihar, it is clear that the survivors feel lucky to have escaped unscathed because the death toll across Nepal has crossed 6,000.
Surinder Prasad Kushwaha, a 42-year-old mason from Motihari, says: “I have to recover over Rs 2.5 lakh as payment for my work from my employer whose house I was constructing.”
Ram Nath Raut, 33, says he is owed Rs 2 lakh by his employer. Dharmendra Kumar, 23, from Muzaffarpur, has similar worries.
Their predicament now is whether they will get the amounts owed to them. Some of the houses they were building were damaged by the 7.9-magnitude temblor.
The other fear is about the financial health of their employers who too suffered extensive losses.
“My employer asked me to come later when I went to request him to clear my dues after the earthquake. I am worried about my payment and have to return to collect it,” says Raut.
Ask the survivors about their decision to leave Kathmandu almost a week after the quake and they say it is the lurking fear of the outbreak of an epidemic and pressure from their families.
“The fear of epidemic looms large. Having survived the earthquake I will not like to fall prey to an epidemic,” says Sunita Devi, a 35-year-old homemaker.
Thousands of bodies are still trapped in the debris.
“Fortunately, Nepal has a cool climate, which has delayed the onset of an epidemic in a disaster of this magnitude,” says Dinesh Thakur, 63, a barber from Sugauli in East Champaran district, whose average daily income was Rs 500 to Rs 600. He had rented a small shop in old Baneshwar neighbourhood of Kathmandu, where he lived for 43 years.
Barely two hours into the journey and the reality of travelling in a rickety bus provided by the Bihar government hits the passengers hard. The journey is interrupted as the bus hurtles to an abrupt stop after an accident.
As the bus’ brakes malfunction, the driver pulls the emergency handbrake. A motorcyclist following the bus hits it, throwing the driver and pillion rider off the road.
A motley crowd gathers around the bus but it is forgiving when people learn the quake survivors are travelling in it.
“The brakes are not functioning properly but I can still take you to your destination,” says driver Jitender Rai.
The passengers refuse to take the driver’s claim at face value. “We have just survived the earthquake. We do not want to risk our lives again,” says Khushwaha.
Within seconds, the passengers disembark and the bus is empty. The journey is abruptly truncated and the survivors crib about the Bihar government as they wait by the roadside.
Officials of the Indian consulate in Birgunj later say the passengers reached Raxaul at 3am on Friday in a replacement bus.
The consul general in Birganj, Anju Ranjan, had cautioned the Bihar government only a couple of days ago some of the faulty buses in its fleet. On Tuesday, three buses reportedly developed mechanical problems, holding up the evacuation of Indian nationals from Nepal.