Government officials touring the corpse-strewn streets of the city of Morvi today predicted that the death toll would exceed 10,000 -- 10 times higher than previous official estimates -- from flooding that engulfed the area when a dam burst on Saturday.
"Vultures are everywhere," said a man looking for relatives in Morvi, once a scenic royal capital built by a maharajah, where bodies were still littering streets, roofs, houses and temples today.
Rescue officials said they had recovered 1,000 bodies from the muddy ruins of Morvi, an important Indian industrial center producing ceramic pottery, tiles and bricks. Morvi, formerly a city of 60,000, is located 300 miles north of Bombay.
"The death toll will be between 10,000 and 15,000," Vallabhai Patel, vice president of the governing Janata Party for the State of Gujarat, told reporters today in Morvi. Patel, who had four relatives killed in the floods, called for a judicial probe into the tragedy.
"The toll will run into five figures," said Congress Party leader, Jashwant Mehta, one of a group of politicians who toured the devastated city.
Other observers estimated privately today that the final death toll may rise to 25,000. Officials first reported 1,000 dead after the dam broke Saturday, but one admitted today that "this figure is ridiculous as 1,000 bodies have already been dug out from the debris."
"The smell of dead bodies . . . it was a nauseating scene," one man said. "Wherever I went, I saw badly bloated bodies lying scattered in the streets."
He said could not locate either his aunt or his ancestral home. In its place was what he described as "a huge blob of mud."
Haribhai Bhoora, a Morvi insurance underwriter and a survivor, told reporters he and his brother had managed to smash a hole in the roof of their home Saturday to save six members of the family.
"We could not save four others who remained trapped inside another room," Bhoora said. "We had to leave fast with the people we had managed to save before gushing waters closed over our home."
As troops, police and civilian volunteers struggled amid the stench of death to clean up the town, health authorities expressed fears of an epidemic if the decomposing bodies were not quickly buried. Medical teams were checking cholera symptoms among the thousands made homeless by the flood.
"We are planning to innoculate 1,000 people per hour," one doctor said.
The dam near Morvi, built between 1974 and 1978 at a cost of $2 million, was 52 feet high and two miles long. Built to withstand 200,000 cubic feet of water a second, the earth-walled structure collapsed Saturday under the pressure of twice that volume, a Central Water Commission official said in New Delhi.
The collapse, following rainfall of more than 20 inches in the area during the previous 24 hours, triggered a flash flood that sent tons of water crashing through the streets of Morvi, four miles downstream and into nearby villages, where an additional 50,000 people are estimated to have lived.
A former Gujarat chief minister, Madhavsinh Solani, charged yesterday that state government claims about the extent of rescue and cleanup activities were exaggerated. He termed it "shocking and sad" that state authorities were not prepared to admit that this disorganization existed.
The Gujarat state government reacted to criticism of its rescue operations -- and of its failure to warn the population in the area that the dam was in danger of bursting -- by ordering a judicial inquiry into the disaster, believed the costliest in human lives since India's independence 32 years ago.