Stranded by hundreds of miles of floodwaters and trapped on rooftops and trees, desperate villagers stormed rescue boats on Sunday as they tried to escape the flooding that tore through a riverbank and spilled over northern India's vast plains.
Two weeks after the Kosi River overflowed its banks, Indian officials commandeered private watercraft after hearing that boat owners were charging people up to $150 each for a lifesaving ride — an impossibly large amount for those marooned in impoverished villages where many survive on a dollar a day.
At a makeshift command post on a bridge outside Triveniganj, near the Nepal border, boats filled with survivors arrived every 10 or 15 minutes. Anything rescuers could scrounge was put to work — bright orange rubber dinghies, rickety wooden rowboats, canoes and shallow-bottomed army transports that appeared pulled straight from World War II.
Each time a boat docked, the crowd surged forward, hoping for news about loved ones. Many were outraged, saying the rescue was too slow and very little aid was reaching those trapped.
Angry cries turned to silence as a canoe came in with a shrouded body strapped on top. Perched next to the body were the dead woman's daughter and son-in-law.
"She died of starvation," said Sanjay Kumar, 55-year-old Surji Devi's son-in-law, as onlookers placed burning incense on the body.
"We were trying to survive on just water for the last 10 days, but it's not enough," said the woman's 27-year-old daughter, Asha.
1.2 million homeless
About 1.2 million people have been left homeless in the two weeks since the Kosi River in neighboring Nepal dramatically changed course and spilled billions of gallons of water into the plains of northern India's Bihar state.
"We were trapped with nothing after our houses were swept away," said Lakshmi Devi, 24, as she left a boat with her husband and two small crying children. All they brought with them was a plastic bag of clothes.
They found shelter on the school's roof, the only concrete building in their village of mud and thatch huts.
Estimates of the number of dead range from scores to thousands. On Friday, 19 people drowned when their rescue boat capsized.
Some 700,000 people are still trapped with little or no food. The breach in the riverbank is more than a mile long and growing every day, and authorities say it can't be repaired until the monsoon season tapers off in November.
In the flooded villages, hundreds of people scrambled to get on each boat, wading through chest-high waters with suitcases on their heads.
Many wept and pleaded as they threw themselves on one boat designed to carry 12 people that eventually departed with 48 inside, according to an Associated Press photographer on board. Paramilitary officers forced off several others fearing the boat would sink.
Food slow to arrive
Officials insisted they were doing their best to provide food and rescue.
"We have sent packets of rice and sugar to the stranded," said Ravindra Prasad Singh, a state government official coordinating rescue work in Supaul. The district lies about 875 miles east of New Delhi, the capital, and is one of five flooded districts in Bihar.
But he could not say how much had been sent and other officials acknowledged very little food was getting through.
"They are getting nothing," said Ranjita Ranjan, a lawmaker from the district who had just returned after visiting the villages to distribute 400 food packages.
Singh said the government's main focus was on rescuing people and getting them to relief camps.
"The situation is definitely bad, but now the army has joined in and rescue operations will be speeded up," he said.
Across Bihar authorities have evacuated 475,000 people and put many of them in state-run relief camps, said Prataya Amrit, secretary of the state's disaster management department. Among those saved was an army officer who was believed to have died in Friday's boat accident but was found alive Sunday clinging to a tree, said Amrit.
India wasn't the only South Asian country contending with monsoon floods. In northern Bangladesh, flooding has cut off at least 20,000 people, news reports said Sunday as a flood warning agency forecast the situation is "likely to deteriorate."
The monsoon season, which lasts from June to September, brings rain vital for the farmers of Bangladesh and India but also can cause massive destruction.