The scale of calamity cannot be an excuse for the complete paralysis and delayed response

A response not enough

Jammu and Kashmir, particularly Kashmir Valley may never have witnessed a disaster of the magnitude that it is engulfed in today. Over 200 people are dead and people still caught in affected areas still battling for survival and waiting to be rescued. In the ultimate run, honest introspection would bring forth the sad saga of environmental degradation, ill planned cities, towns and villages with unscientific drainage systems and poorly planning and resourced disaster management mechanism. Not to miss is the complete paralysis in the government in improvising the disaster management system and also when the calamity was still in its infancy. There were no efforts to gear up resources or arrange for a back up contingency plan when the administration still had time. A day before the floods badly hit central Kashmir, Chief minister Omar Abdullah was offering assurances, asking people not to panic but either shift out from vulnerable areas to safer places or take shelter in the top storeys of their homes and promising that the government will reach out to them. No alternate shelters were identified for people being asked to vacate their homes at a time when things could have been better managed when communication system in the Valley had not taken such a beating.

The government’s own poor response was either due to poor assessment of the magnitude of the crisis or marked by complacency. Even the top floors of many houses have not proved to be safe as the furious floods have shaken their foundations. The state government’s distress calls to the centre came too late in the day and the centre, which was busy politicking over Article 370 and return of Kashmiri migrants, itself showed a belated inclination to help. No amount of hastened speed after this initial paralysis can undo the damage. Many of those who are a vital part of the administration were themselves victims of the flood, further throwing the administrative apparatus into disrepair and added to that was the paucity of resources and flood threat to vital infrastructure like health-care. It may have been impossible to effectively respond to such a scale of the disaster. However, prompt action would certainly have minimized the agony. 

Though one cannot quite blame the government for the complete crisis due to breakdown of communication system and power shut down, steps to restore the system have come a little too late, making it difficult for victims to reach out for help. Now that the water levels are receding, this should be taken up on a war footing and till that time temporary emergency back up systems should be put in place so that all lesser affected localities have access to satellite phones and electricity on community based pattern at least for limited access, especially to help them trace their missing family members, access to relief, food, water and health care. Helplines for collecting basic information of people waiting to be rescued have not been quite functional with the telephone lines not being in a workable condition and the home ministry numbers erratic in their response. A good endeavour seems to have started from Jammu city where helplines are set up at Police Control Room and Jammu Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation complex where people can file in details about their family members stranded in the flood affected areas. However, the effectiveness of the communication between Jammu and Srinagar offices is still doubtful.

A much needed step to minimise this agony and chaos emanating out of it would be for the government to begin compiling a list of rescued people, most of whom are at various camps set up two days ago. Had it not been for the army, police, navy and some young local volunteers, whose brave efforts have played a great role in rescuing the people, the losses may have been much higher. And while rescue operations are still on, the distribution of relief must begin immediately not only for the people who have been rescued from the worst affected flood hit areas but also those stuck in their houses in the comparatively safer zones with no electricity, communication system, food and water. Among several other immediate emergency measures, mobile health clinics should be made available not only at the camps but also in the localities where people are left to fend for themselves.