Patna (Bihar): The family of 22-year-old Sonu Kumar Yadav desperately waited for nearly two weeks after the flash floods in Chamoli in the hope of getting some good news from Uttarakhand. Finally, they had to give up hope and assume that Sonu was dead. On February 21, the family members arranged a symbolic funeral by burning his effigy.
Satendra Yadav, elder brother of Sonu, told Newsclick: “How long can we wait? Village people have been telling us that it is not good to wait for so long. So, finally, we performed a funeral making an effigy of straw and sticks.”
Sonu was a resident of Agothar Sundar Panchayat in Saran district, around 65 kilometres from Patna, the the capital of Bihar.
On February 7, a devastating flood had occurred in the environs of Nanda Devi national park in the outer Garhwal Himalayas in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. The flash floods were believed to have been caused by a landslide, avalanche or a glacial lake outburst.
According to the report registered in Joshimath Police station (Uttarakhand), 205 people were reported missing in the disaster. Out of which, so far 70 bodies and 29 human body parts have been recovered during search operations, 40 bodies and one body part have been identified, according to the police.
Out of 205 missing persons, nine were migrants from Bihar--- two from Saran, two from Siwan, one each from Samastipur, Patna, Champaran and Muzaffarpur. Another person’s address could not be ascertained, according to the list released by the Uttarakhand administration.
Newsclick managed to track three victims’ families. Sonu was one among them.
The 22-year-old had been working in Uttarakhand since January this year. He was earlier working in Bengaluru as a biscuit seller with his elder brother Satendra, but the sudden lockdown on Mrach 25, 2020, forced the brothers to come back to Bihar.
“Though our income was not much but we would get cash instantly. During the lockdown, our work stopped. Our boss arranged food for us for three-four months. The owner too was not getting income so he advised us to go to our native village. We came to our village. Later, Sonu went to Vijayawada,” Satendra said.
Sonu had come to his village again in December last year as he was to get married in June this year. “Everything was fixed. He was to get married on June 15. A local contractor in our village had arranged a welder's job for Sonu in Uttarakhand, so he didn't go to Vijayawada and left for Uttarakhand,” says his elder brother.
Narrating their ordeal after news of the Chamoli disaster spread, Satendra said: “We had talked to him the day before the disaster. Next day, when we called him again in the morning, his phone was switched off. That time we had no idea of any such disaster. After half an hour, we called our relative who used to work with him. He started crying and told us that he haad died."
Sonu’s father had visited Uttarakhand soon after the disaster where his DNA test was conducted and government officials said they would match the report with the recovered bodies and inform him.
Ritesh Mahto: ‘Wife Thinks he is Still Alive’
Another missing person, Ritesh Mahto, was a resident of Kanta village under Gaighat Block in Muzaffarpur. He has two children (one two-year-old and another three-year-old) and wife. His body, too, is yet to be recovered.
Ritesh’s brother Ramesh had left for Uttarakhand after the disaster but had to return empty-handed. Uttarakhand government officials have so far sent more than four dozen photos of dead bodies on WhatsApp numbers but none matches Ritesh.
Ritesh Mahto's wife and children still believe that he is alive and will return one day.
“I returned on February 23, after giving a DNA sample for test. Only thing I could identify there was the destroyed part of the vehicle which he used to drive in Uttarakhand,” Ramesh told Newsclick.
Ritesh, 34, earlier used to drive a private car in Delhi. Before the lockdown, he moved to Uttarakhand. He had come to his village for a short period during Chhath Puja last year-end.
“Her wife is currently at her father’s house in Darbhanga. We had informed her about the disaster but she still believes that he (Ritesh) is alive and can return anytime,” Ramesh told Newsclick.
“We tried to convince her, but she is not ready to listen to anyone. We don’t know how to convince her,” he further said.
Ramesh says: “The family has not yet performed last rites. We are waiting for his death certificate. Once we get the certificate, we will perform necessary rituals.”
Naresh Das: “Our Brother May be Alive”
The case of Naresh Das, a resident of Basudevpur village in Samastipur district, is a bit peculiar.
Das never had a mobile phone in his possession, so his family has the impression that he may be alive. His younger brother, Rajesh, told Newsclick: “From the beginning, he has not carried a mobile phone. Whenever needed, he would call us from other people’s mobile numbers or from a PCO (public call office).”
Samastipur resident Naresh Das is named in the missing list of Uttarakhand administration but his body is yet to be recovered.
Naresh normally called once in a month. Occasionally, he would make two-three calls a month. “The last call he made to us was on January 1,” said Rajesh.
Naresh’s family came to know about the disaster on February 8. “We came across a news item in a Hindi newspaper’s website. After that some media people came to us and informed us about it. Later, a police personnel from Uttarakhand called us to seek the mobile number of my brother,” he said.
Soon after the disaster, the Uttarakhand government had issued a list of missing persons. The list includes the name of Naresh, but according to family members, the company with which he was employed, is now denying his presence at the time of disaster.
Rajesh said: “The list must have been prepared with the help of companies who were operating there. But we don't know why the company is denying his presence. If the company is telling the truth, then he must be alive. He did not have a mobile phone, so we are not sure if he is dead or alive. That is why we are not performing his last rites. I have informed the police personnel (in Uttarakhand) that I am ready to give samples for DNA tests if neededThey said they will let us know,” he added.
Naresh was earlier working in Ludhiana. He was in Uttarakhand since the past one year. He is married and has two children (an 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son). His father suffers from tuberculosis. Naresh and his two brothers were working as labourers in the village. “We are poor people. We need government help to survive and look after his wife and children,” Rajesh told Newsclick.
The aggrieved families alleged that the Bihar government was not taking proactive initiative to track down their dear ones.
“Not a single official from the state government has ever called us. Whatever communication was made was from Uttarakhand officials,” they said.
“We want the Bihar government to take proactive steps to clear the compensation issues as soon as possible,” they said, even as they wait for some news about their dear ones to reach some kind of closure.
The writer is freelance journalist based in Bihar.