NATURAL CALAMITY, MAN MADE DISASTER
The Centre for Policy Analysis organised a visit to Jammu and Kashmir with the purpose of bringing out an interim report on the flood situation in the state. The team comprised Tushar Gandhi, Anand Sahay and Seema Mustafa. Bula Devi, coordinated the visit.
The team visited Srinagar that was worst affected in the Valley along with South Kashmir districts. The team visited the affected areas and spoke to residents, shopkeepers, the youth who had organised relief operations and journalists including the Editor of Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari who has also taken up rescue and relief operations. The team also met the Chief Secretary and top officials of the state government as well as Congress party’s Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Soz, and Peoples Democratic Party leaders Mehbooba Mufti and Naeem Akhtar, Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, the Jamaat e Islami and its top leaders including the Amir and many others.
Serious trouble has many dimensions. In Kashmir, after the recent floods — the worst not only in the last one hundred years but probably of all times — which devastated not just the habitation of lakhs of people but also every aspect of the economy and an entire way of life, perhaps the most striking feature is the absence of any effort of mobilisation of the national will by the state government and the Centre.The government of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was caught unawares by nature’s fury and, as might well have happened in any state in India, its inefficiencies and incapacities to rush in relief or rehabilitation (after its initial failure to rescue) even several days after the flood waters rose up to 40 feet in some parts of the city (such as Ram Munshi Bagh) have left the people angry and disillusioned.
The three-member CPA team visiting the Kashmir Valley from September 27-29 heard elaborations of this all over Srinagar, from senior mainstream politicians and important separatist leaders, as well as ordinary people at relief camps and on the streets.
Hardly any less striking has been the failure of the Union government to provide moral support and material assistance on the scale required. High representatives of the Union government made pro forma flying visits. Exactly one month after large parts of Srinagar were submerged on September 7, 2014, following four days of frighteningly heavy and unseasonal rains, it is reasonable to assert that the Centre has failed to mobilise the country behind the gargantuan task of rehabilitation of Kashmir valley.
Immediately after much of the valley was marooned, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used appropriate words to describe the catastrophe.
He called it a “national disaster”. A month after, those words seem empty.There has been no move through radio and television to rally the nation behind Kashmir. Red tape has not been cut to rush finances to the beleaguered state under special dispensations or through special purpose vehicles devised to meet an unforeseen and extraordinary situation which has negatively impacted lakhs of lives in a state which is routinely described as “sensitive” on account of its geostrategic position. Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister referred to the issue of relief for disaster-hit Kashmir in his speech in the United Nations at the end of September, but his words do not seem to have travelled beyond the four walls of the General Assembly.
In contrast, the promptness of voluntary aid — although this is bound to be a drop in the ocean in relation to the scale of the calamity — from all corners of India has been a touching demonstration of what the human heart is capable of and what individual will can achieve. In Srinagar, the CPA group came scores of relief teams from different parts of the country engaged in offering medical assistance to people at risk of contracting deadly diseases if not attended to with speed.
It is our heartfelt wish that political and social activists from all parts of India visit the Kashmir valley and the hill terrain of Jammu in Rajouri and Poonch to see how their fellow-citizens have suffered, and find ways to help them generously and with the utmost diligence.The state government is not sure even at this stage what exactly happened on the September 7 and 8, 2014 when much of Srinagar –the seat of government, the centres of business, trade and industry, and the tourist spots in Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city –capsized, parts of it such as Ram Munshi Bagh going under 40 feet of water.
The command and control locations and apparatus have not been struck by disaster in any other state capital before. This compounded the Kashmir tragedy in the wake of rain and flood and made the task of rescue, relief and rehabilitation incomparably complex.
The state Chief Secretary, Mr Iqbal Khandey and his senior officials told the CPA fact-finding team that a technical assessment will have to be made about what exactly happened. The Jhelum river snakes its way through the ancient city of Srinagar some 60 kilometres after it takes its rise in South Kashmir. Four days of blinding rain had caused the river to swell. It breached its banks at Kandizal in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, some 15 kilometres from Srinagar.
This led to the initial assessment that Srinagar might be saved from what looked like certain disaster, the speed at which the water level was rising, as the water might now be discharged away from densely inhabited areas. But this was not to be.The senior officials said the flood refill channel running approximately parallel to the Jhelum in Srin The senior officials said the flood refill channel running approximately parallel to the Jhelum in Srinagar had been built in 1902 on the assumption that the river, when in spate, would not be carrying more than 80,000 cusecs of water while passing through Srinagar, and some 35,000 cusecs of this would be discharged into the flood refill channel if need arose. The assumption had held for 112 years. Over the years, however, the flood channel has not been tested. Indeed, housing has come up on and around it and this was bound to impede water flow in an emergency. That emergency struck in the first week of September.
This year, say officials, the gauge stations, which are monitored hourly, went under. They estimate that 1,20,000 cusecs of water was coursing through Srinagar on September 7 and 8, the equivalent of the flow of three Jhelums in Srinagar. How this came to be is wholly unclear, especially after the breaching of the Jhelum banks at Kandizal. To explain this, the top officials say there might have been multiple cloud bursts on the night of September 6 around Srinagar, before the river enters the big city.
This is a completely untested hypothesis and may be a convenient and contrived explanation. Therefore, a thorough inquiry is in order.
In slightly more specific terms the team has attempted to segregate the areas of concern into the following, to give a more specific understanding of the situation on the ground today: THE FLOODS:Water levels rose alarmingly with the rains and flood waters rising to submerge districts in South Kashmir. The State government and the authorities were caught completely off guard even though the team was told by concerned officials that the water levels of the rivers were monitored almost hourly. However, there seems to have been no effort to warn the people in South Kashmir, and to evacuate the villages, many of them are reported to have been washed away by the torrential waters. People were rescued by the Army and by volunteers from their homes after days, with any number of stories narrated to the team members about the trauma and the suffering of the local residents who barely managed to escape with their lives.
Despite this, there seemed to be little understanding of how the South Kashmir deluge would move to impact on other parts of the State. Some effort — minimalist in our view — was made by the State government to ask the people to evacuate their homes. The radio and the loudspeakers on mosques were used as the communication system for this by the State government. However, no one not even the authorities took the warnings seriously with the government making no effort to evacuate the residents or even itself for that matter. The warnings thus remained at best a token response to the South Kashmir situation where the waters had risen dramatically and the rivers had already started flowing far over the danger mark. The State government in the little time it had made no effort to requisition boats, life jackets and prepare for rescue operations. An indication of the non preparedness comes from the fact that the government that is adept at moving its darbar to Jammu in the winter months, did not even lift a finger to move itself on to safe, dry land where it could remain in contact with the people. Despite the fact that floods hit the State every now and again — of course never as severe as this — there seems to be no disaster management protocol in place.
The result is that when the rivers breached the bands, and came rushing into the city everyone was caught unawares. Resident after resident told the team of how the waters moved from puddles outside on the roads to the second floor of houses with dramatic speed. One young man said that he was running down the street to his house with the waters literally roaring behind him as he ran.
Within hours Srinagar was literally drowning in the torrential flood waters that had acquired a high current. The Army cantonment was flooded as were all the officials, with the government having disappeared from sight.
All communications broke down, and the city blacked out as residents tried to save their lives in the dark. Many who spoke to us broke down in tears while narrating the trauma. They were trapped and were saved only because many of the houses have attics where the families took refuge as the waters swirled around them.THE RESCUE:
The State government and administration was caught unawares and once Srinagar was flooded under 20+ feet of water the State machinery officials, police and military were all submerged and paralysed. Victims cannot rescue nor can they provide relief and this is exactly what happened as officials, police and Army found themselves marooned and got into the victim frame of mind. So in the moment of crisis they were not able to perform their responsibility as saviours.
In the first stage even as the Army was marshalling boats and its resources, the youth started braving the waters to save their families, neighbours and themselves as the waters kept rising and many buildings were demolished in front of their eyes. To their credit the Kashmiri youth, condemned as rioters and stone pelters, rose to the occasion and became the heroic rescuers. If it was not for their very timely, heroic, innovative and tireless effort the tragedy would have been much more grim and the casualty figure in Srinagar much greater. The youth of Srinagar deserves commendation, congratulations and gratitude. When they extracted themselves from being victims the armed forces too performed commendably but it must be said that they too were absent at the grimmest initial hours.
The Kashmiri youth broke down furniture, water tanks and all they could find to put together rough boats to rescue the people. They were joined soon by the Army that did a great job but was bound to some extent by the protocol of saving VIPs , tourists, and then the civilians in that order. Besides the Army continued with the protocol of security with each rescue boat manned by at least five to six jawans, and therefore having little room for the civilians shouting for help. However, the soldiers worked day and night both in Srinagar and other affected parts of the State, with any number of Kashmiris praising the efforts. But as a journalist said, and it is a view with which this team agrees, the Army did its job with commendation but it was the Kashmiri youth — many of whom did not know how to swim — who were the unsung heroes of what had by then become a mammoth rescue operation.
Relief Operations perforce had to begin while the rescue was on as the lakhs of people marooned had run out of food and drinking water. The rescue boats started carrying water and food packets, with choppers being used to throw packets that fell into the waters instead of into the hands of the people. There is a six per cent higher than national average of diabetes in the State, with insulin and medicines becoming another essential need.
Again, the State government remained paralysed, and it was the youth, the journalists and others who came together to identify the immediate needs of the people, and send out help calls on the social media for the items required. They formed teams to distribute the relief material with the Army of course taking care of the larger operations on this front. However, the absence of the civilian administration hampered the work of the Army as well in the relief operations with serious problems of coordination that still do not seem to have been rectified.
Individuals and organisations from cities outside Jammu and Kashmir contributed greatly in sending across teams of doctors and volunteers as well as relief material. In fact very soon, because of coordination between civil society groups and the Kashmiris per se, the scarcity of medicines like insulin were overcome. Most Kashmiris spoken to said that there was sufficient material in the form of clothes, medicines, drinking water but the problem remained in the coordination, and the red tapism of the State government in allowing them to clear the material without the usual red tapism. The result was that large piles of relief material collected at the airport while the State government officials wrangled over the paper work. This has also led to a perception, right or wrong, that the National Conference and its government is trying to seize the goods meant for relief for others, and distribute it under its own banner for political mileage.
However, the government has been more visible in this field now than it was earlier and vaccination teams have been moving around the affected areas to prevent an epidemic. The swift clearance of the carcasses is a plus for the government and the local bodies, with the cold weather contributing to the fact that large scale disease has not engulfed the devastated State because of the stagnant water and the continuing rot. A major problem is the onsetting winter with blankets, warm clothes and shelters urgently required. Not much has moved on this front as well, with lakhs still homeless with their homes either washed away or in no state to be occupied because of the damp and the erosion by the flood waters that have rendered most of the houses unsafe.
The damage caused to government installations, official housing and infrastructure, public works such as roads, bridges, school and hospital buildings, administrative offices, electrical installations and electronic networks, besides severe damage to agriculture (rice crop) and horticulture (the apple crop this year) is being officially estimated at Rs. 30,000 crore. Unofficially political parties estimate the losses at Rs 100,000 crores.
This, however, seems a guess more than an approximation. If the severe losses sustained by private citizens — their homes, businesses, industries all gone — is considered, any considerably higher amount would seem plausible and the figure of Rs. 100,000 crore may not be extravagant, though this is also something of an educated guess. An urgent damage assessment conducted by top-flight professionals with relevant experience is, thus, strongly indicated.
Mr. Bashir Mir, the president of the apple growers’ association of Wagoora tehsil of Baramulla district, Kashmir’s most valuable apple region, informed the CPA team that approximately 25,000 apple-growing horticulturists of Baramulla district, would have been eligible for kisan loans from the banking sector of the order of rupees two to three lakhs each. They would not be able to repay the loan this year on account of gushing flood waters hitting the apple orchards. Prior to that the crop was already affected by a deadly pesticide. A similar number of horticulturists is likely to be adversely affected for the same reasons in the Pulwama and Shopian districts of South Kashmir. If the horticulturists’ loans are not waived this year, the apple farmers will be driven to rack and ruin.
Their incomes would be down to about 20 per cent of the norm while they would be obliged to pay seven per cent interest on their bank loans if the debt is not discharged within the year. It is situations similar to these that have led to farmers’ suicides in several states, including the well-to-do ones such as Punjab, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The rehabilitation process is going to be a massive undertaking with conservative estimates putting the reconstruction of Kashmir at a minimum of five years. There is no indication that the government is even seized of this with Kashmiris all speaking of the urgency with which this should be tackled to prevent trauma, depression and of course, more deaths in the deadly winters. The Chief Secretary, however, said this would be done but the speed of governance, despite the urgency, seems to have hit an all time low.