This is a story of a non-story.
When first reports came in around 4.15 pm on Thursday about a Delhi-bound private bus from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, having overturned and caught fire on NH-28 at Kotwan area of East Champaran district, initial reports reaching the state government suggested that since only eight passengers could come out safely, it was assumed that the toll could not be less than 30.
The Muzaffarpur administration had first said that 42 passengers had boarded the air-conditioned bus, operated by Sahil Raj Bus Service of Uttar Pradesh.
By 5 pm, most news channels and social media carried ‘news’ of over two dozen casualties. While both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister paid their condolences, Nitish also observed a two-minute silence at a function he attended in Patna.
Twenty-four hours later, it turns out no one had died.
Bihar’s Principal Secretary (disaster management) Pratyaya Amrit, who had said late Thursday evening that the toll could not be more than seven, on Friday told The Indian Express, “After a thorough search by NDRF, SDRF and FSL teams, no body or remains were found. We are relieved there is no casualty.”
Stating that no relative of any passenger had approached the government, Amrit said, “Besides eight injured, others could have been taken home. We have no evidence of any casualty.” Amrit added that it has taught the authorities the danger of working under the pressure of social and electronic media.
On Thursday, as the fire had not been yet extinguished and relief and rescue teams had not reached by evening, there was no way the government could confirm or deny the reported death toll. Tirhut Commissioner H R Sreenivasan kept saying there was no confirmation on the number of ‘casualties’.
CM Nitish Kumar tweeted: “Motihari mein Muzaffarpur se Delhi ja rahi bas durghatna mein logon ki mrityu atyant dukhad. Durghatna me mrit Bihar ke logon ke prijanon ko aarthik sahayata di jayegi tatha ghayalon ke samuchit ilaj ka nirdesh diya gaya (It is extremely sad to learn about deaths of passengers travelling from Muzaffarpur to Delhi at Motihari. Monetary help would be provided to Bihar passengers killed in the accident and instruction has been also given for proper treatment of the injured)”.
A tweet from Modi followed: “My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones due to a bus accident in Motihari. I pray that the injured recover at the earliest: PM @narendramodi”.
By 7.30 pm, the state government was informed that although 42 passengers had booked tickets on the bus, only 13 had got on from Muzaffarpur and 27 were to board at Gopalganj. While an injured person told Motihari district administration that there were 13 passengers, another said there were 23. The different claims confused the administration further. No body had yet been found on the bus.
Later, Bihar’s Disaster Management Minister Dinesh Chandra Yadav said more than two dozen passengers had died. While some channels and news agencies started quoting the minister, he was soon corrected by his department’s officials that there was no final word on the toll.