The death toll in the mid-June flash floods and landslides that devastated the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is now a matter of total confusion. Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister, had said earlier that those still missing on July 15 – a month after the disaster – would be presumed dead. On July 15, he said relatives of the 5,748 people still missing would get the same compensation as those known to have died, but they would not get death certificates.

Buildings in Uttarkashi damaged by the mid-June flash floods (Photo by Pushkar Rawat)

Buildings in Uttarkashi damaged by the mid-June flash floods (Photo by Pushkar Rawat)

The chief minister added that the authorities would continue to search for those missing, and if any of the 5,748 people were found, their relatives would have to return the Rs 500,000 ($8,421) that would now be paid as compensation.

Bahuguna was quoted by the local media as saying, “This is hoping against hope, but we can’t declare them dead. The mission to find them will go on as we hope that the missing will surface and return home. But if the missing persons are found, the family will have to return the money.”

Soldiers evacuate one of the men injured by the mid-June flash floods near Kedarnath (Photo by Sanjay Semwal)

Soldiers evacuate one of the men injured by the mid-June flash floods near Kedarnath (Photo by Sanjay Semwal)

Insurance firms and banks are now in a quandary. In the absence of death certificates, they cannot pay insurance claims or hand over bank accounts to relatives. There is no word on how long the authorities will take before calling off the search. A disaster management expert in New Delhi said the chances of finding any of the missing persons after a month were “negligible”. Relief and rescue operations were continuing in Uttarakhand, however, despite being halted repeatedly by heavy rainfall.

If the number of those missing is added to those known to have been killed, the official death toll will near the 6,500 mark, making this one of the biggest disasters in the Himalayas in recent years.

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