Indian authorities said more than 5,000 people are missing following last month’s flash floods in the north in what could be the country’s worst natural disaster since the Indian Ocean tsunami almost a decade ago.
Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand province, said 5,748 people remain unaccounted for while refusing to officially declare them dead. He said that the government will begin paying compensation of 500,000 rupees ($8,340) to the families of each victim. The death toll in Uttarakhand currently stands at 580 people.
“We don’t want to get into an argument over whether they are dead or not,” Bahuguna said at a televised press conference yesterday. “Let’s hope they are alive and the search will continue.”
India’s monsoon moved across the country with record speed this year as raging rivers, channeled by steep-sided and deforested valleys in the foothills of the Himalayas, washed away homes and vehicles. Most of the damage was in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh that border Nepal and China.
The death toll in this year’s floods may be higher than in 2007, when more than 2,800 people were killed by rain during the June-September wet season. As many as 50 million people were displaced by floods that destroyed 1.6 million homes in that four-month monsoon period. The United Nations described that flood as the “worst in living memory.”
More than 16,000 Indians died or were declared missing after the 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal areas around the Indian Ocean. India was the third-worst hit nation in the disaster, which displaced a further 600,000 in the country.
India’s monsoon, which accounts for about 70 percent of the country’s rainfall, is vital for agriculture. The rains since the monsoon began June 1 were at one point 48 percent above average, helping to ease water shortages in some regions and promising to boost crop production in the world’s second-most populous country.
Hindu and Sikh pilgrims who were traveling to religious shrines in Uttarakhand were among those killed or left stranded. The state, which has a population of almost 10 million people, received unprecedented rainfall last month, causing rivers to burst their banks.