What I saw on the ground

From 7th September, I and my team happened to extensively visit almost all of the flood affected areas of Srinagar city for rescue and relief operations. I saw the ground situation very closely and would like to share some of my observations.

Firstly, more than 90 percent of the actual rescue and relief work was carried out by the common Kashmiris themselves, using whatever little they had at their disposal. I was amazed to see the innovation people had put in making temporary boats for rescue. They had used hollow drums, foam rolls, GI sheets, tyre tube, half cut syntax tanks, buckets, ropes and what not! Also people could be seen rushing with boats from Dal Lake, loaded not only on load carriers, truck and cars but even on their shoulders. This would not have been the need, had the sophisticated heavy duty boats been put to work by government, as claimed (they said over 200 boats were brought!). 

State administration was missing on the ground and army choppers were just making rounds in the sky, dropping few packets of food here and there, adding salt to the injury. It was really disappointing to see that the State authorities did not make any effort to shift even the patients from government hospitals (including the maternity hospital, Lal Ded). I could not hold back my tears, seeing women in labour pain or fresh cesarean, being taken to safe places by their attendants and volunteers on stretchers through the crowded and broken bund. As per reports, a lady delivered her baby in a Piago load carrier, when it got stuck in traffic jam!

Also the backbone of the relief camps were the langars and accommodation organized by Masjid committees all across the city. The Sikh community, especially Gurudwara Chati-padshahi and Gurudwara Barzula worked tirelessly in a well organized manner and provided exemplary service to all flood victims. Muslims and Sikhs at many places worked together with communal brotherhood which is the hallmark of Kashmir. Common people had all their focus on the rescue/relief work and had no interest, intention or time to take photographs and videos of what they were doing. There was hardly any genuine media coverage of the situation on ground by local or national/international media channels. I took some photographs secretly, because in times of such extreme crisis, when people are dying, it comes across as insensitivity to comfortably take pictures and videos of other’s miseries. Contrary to this, army was clearly more interested in magnifying whatever little they did through State controlled media. Just when my mobile got some signal, the only SMSs I received were the over exaggerated claims of army and IAF. They read "IAF rescues 1.2 lakh people". I don’t understand, even if they did, what is the purpose of telling me?? Being fair, I would say that I saw no rescue work by State along right side of Jehlum (Jehangir Chowk side area). However, I did see the presence of army boats, medicals camps and some relief work by army along Tengpora bypass area, Rajbagh and a bit from Bemina side. 

As far as the reports of stone pelting on army choppers are concerned, they are true for some places and I myself witnessed it. Such incidents happened mostly where they were dropping food packets not during rescue (as no one would want to die just because he hates the person who is rescuing him! ). I personally am not in favour of such actions. I believe whatever little help anyone does, it should be welcomed and appreciated. I at one time saw an army chopper dropping packets of food, milk and water. Some local boys stone pelted it, and after the chopper left they tore open all the packets and wasted all of them on the spot. There were some people who actually wanted to take that relief food and were sad to see it all being wasted. I think one has every right to boycott receiving any help but has no right to force others for the same. However, the other side also cannot be ignored. The anger and frustration of common people is also genuine, given the sluggish and sit-back approach of the government instead of meeting the flood crisis head-on. It literally ignored the people on ground when they needed help the most. They were acting like police in Hindi movies which comes after everything is settled. Overall, the role of State authorities, national disaster management committee and IAF/ARMY has been very little, delayed, disappointing, unplanned and a complete mess.

I would like to highlight some points:

– There was no timely alarm given to people. Flood was already coming from South Kashmir. In floods, which occurred even over 100 years ago in Kashmir, telegrams used to be sent from Anantnag to Srinagar, warning people of the coming flood, well before 10-12 hrs. This would make people ready to face it. But today in 21st century, things seem to be worse. There is no mechanism in place to predict or monitor coming flood situation. In fact, the government itself was taken by surprise, let alone public. The proof is that NO official records/files in any government department were shifted to safe places and have all got damaged. I guess only Banks have been able to safeguard their vital data. If at all people were alarmed anywhere, it was done at 11th hour and they were not warned of such large scale flood. Consequently, most families were in their homes, when flood water came gushing, giving them no chance to escape. It is worth mentioning here that although this flood may be the worst in our living memory but as such floods are not unheard of in the history of Kashmir. There have been many devastating floods in Kashmir’s past 200 years, notably those of years 1841, 1893,1902 (after which flood channel was constructed) and 1957. In fact, Walter R. Lawrence more than 100 years ago writes in his famous book ‘Vale of Kashmir’ that "It is unfortunate that Srinagar should have been built on its present site. It is not only exposed to constant danger from floods, but is itself the cause of flood, because it checks the drainage of the country." He calls Jehlum "Sleeping Lion". May be a common man was not aware, but flood control department must have been knowing this fact. What had they done to take care of this threat? Leave aside mega engineering projects to make our city flood safe, they didn’t work even on strengthening/repairing embankment along Jehlum nor did any dredging of the same. Years of silting resulted in significant decrease in the depth of this river and thus making it more flood prone.

– Some experts say that if gates of the Dal Lake would have been opened for flood water of Jehlum at right time, it may have greatly mitigated the human and property losses caused by the flood. I think this makes sense because Dal Lake happens to be a natural escape for the flood water of Jehlum. Also, the rise in water level of Dal would have been very slow owing to its huge pondage capacity, thus giving enough time to people for escaping towards safe places, unlike places which were flooded by Jehlum directly. They got only few minutes to escape.

– There were hardly any motor boats, raft boats or life jackets brought to use when they were needed the most. Common people volunteering for rescue, who had no formal training in rescue operations, were forced to construct on-spot temporary boats of whatever they had at hand. Obviously, they were risky to use and had very little capacity. I was myself told by many respectable people from Raj Bagh and Mehjur Nagar area that they got trapped in their houses for four days and more, without any food or drinking water. Some selfish boatmen exploited their misery and charged hefty amounts for rescuing. Some women even gave away their gold jewelery and some gave cash of more than Lakh rupees for their rescue!

– Army choppers were utterly misused, rather rendered useless. Choppers could have played a very vital and crucial role in rescue operations because of their ability to reach places where it was impossible or very difficult to go by boat or otherwise. Also they could have been used to airlift critically ill patients from hospitals. On the contrary, very few people were airlifted using them, and that too selectively. I myself saw a chopper coming to a place where it airlifted two Japanese tourists leaving behind others waiting helplessly! Instead of using the helicopters to rescue the people stranded in flood waters, these were mostly used for dropping food packets, even at places which were dry and easily accessible by road! Had the trapped flood victims been rescued to some safe place, food was a lesser concern. 

There were lots of relief camps. I consider it height of dumbness and completely inappropriate use of choppers. But then I saw their worst misuse when I happened to visit Nehru helipad. There I saw thousands of people from other states of India – over 90% were labourers from UP and Bihar and less than 10% were tourists. From Nehru helipad, they, in groups of twenty, were continuously flown to airport every half an hour, for all these days. When I enquired, I came to know that almost none of them were trapped in floods. They were simply leaving Kashmir for their homes, knowing that they would have no labour work here for the time being and would be jobless. Most of them were from Hawal area, which was not affected by flood. I don’t mean to say that these people should not have been helped. But the question remains: if this exercise deserved a PRIORITY over rescuing those actually trapped, whose houses could have collapsed any time in flood and those who were starving for food and water? Could these labourers and tourists not have stayed for few more days till everyone was rescued? How is it justified to dedicate so many choppers flying hours for merely helping them leave Kashmir when these could have helped save other people’s lives? Interestingly, Indian media counted airlifting of these labourers to airport as "people being rescued"! No wonder people termed it "chopper-drama".

–The relief efforts by the government were delayed and acutely inadequate. I myself saw that most of the food items thrown from the army choppers simply got wasted. What would happen to bread, biscuits or bananas thrown on wet/inundated roads from a height of over 70-80 ft? They would get smashed and rendered useless. Also the quantity was simply too little. I counted when they dropped 50 food packets at Makhdoom sahib fort, when there were thousand on people in relief camps there. It was the local committees of Makhdoom sahib shrine and Chatti-Padshahi Gurdwara that had actually arranged langar for thousands of such flood victims. What would have 50 packets done? Worst was when Indian media highlighted and exaggerated the relief efforts of IAF while comfortably ignoring the efforts of locals. Also, if reports are to be believed, some food items and medicines dropped from choppers were expired. However, I myself could not confirm it, so I am not sure.

-All mobile and landline networks, including internet, were completely shut down as soon the flood came. It exposed their hollow claim of dedicated service. Damn them if their service gets shut when it is needed the most. Moreover, I wonder why their service got shut in entire Kashmir valley when many places were dry and unaffected by floods? And one may also ask had they not taken account of flood situation while installing their towers and other associated instrumentation? It exponentially increased the miseries of the people –no SOS could be send/received from/by stranded people and everyone was worried about wellbeing of their loved ones. One had to put his life at risk and go all the way to search for family, relatives, friends or neighbors. There was complete chaos. Networks are yet to be completely restored even after over a week since the floods. People were forced to get on Hari Parbat Kila or Shankar Acharya hill, trying desperately for catching some signal. It is really a shame for the state that Radio Kashmir too got silent, meaning that even they had no backup plan for flood situation, when otherwise elsewhere people are advised to keeping listening to Radio for important announcements in such natural calamities.

– State Government didn’t bother to set up a control room or helpline numbers even a week after the flood hit us. Contrary to this, I really appreciate the make-shift arrangements of Radio Kashmir setting up help lines and reading out SMS’s from people about updates across valley and messages for loved ones. Shamshad Kralwari, Talha Jehangir, Humayun Kaisar and some other gentlemen set up temporary Radio studio and transmitter on the peak of ShankarAcharya.

– No boat service was provided to connect the areas disconnected by flood waters. It not only severely hampered rescue and relief operation but also prevented people from being able to check on their families and relatives. Also relocation of flood victims became very difficult. The scenes on roads repeatedly reminded me of heard scenes of Partition of India when people would be walking in hurry and worry with their belonging to migrate. Even patients could not be shifted from flooded hospitals. I myself had to swim all the way from Jehangir chowk to Fire station Batamaloo to reach Hyderpora. It was very risky as flood water was flowing very fast, ice cold and brought many sharp objects along.

-No serious effort was/is being made to bring essential commodities including life saving medicines, vaccines, ration, petrol etc. to valley. There is acute shortage of essentially everything.

-There are very high chances that the aftermath of this flood brings about more deaths than the flood itself. Government should have swung health department and municipality into fast action to take all the steps for preventing flood related water borne diseases. No such effort is seen which has really put lives of people at serious risk. Also the de-watering of flooded areas was not commenced immediately and is now going at snail pace, causing increasing damage to the properties of its residents. Sadar hospital SMHS still remains under water even after more than 10 days of flood! Electricity and water supply restoration in dry areas is also not done at war-footings.

There is a lot to share but this time I just pray to Allah to help Kashmir Rise Again soon from this devastation. Let us all be firm and help ourselves and others in need with humanitarian feeling. I would like to share one of my favourite poems written by Charles Mackay, which I had read in early school days. It is titled "Sympathy":

‘I lay in sorrow, deep distressed…
My grief a proud man heard…
His looks were cold. He gave me gold.
But not a kindly word.
My sorrow passed – I paid him back.
The gold he gave to me.
Then stood erect and spoke my thanks
And blessed his charity…
I lay in want, in grief and pain.
A poor man passed my way.
He bound my head. He gave me bread.
He watched me night and day.
How shall I pay him back again
For all he did to me?
Oh! Gold is great. But greater far
Is heavenly sympathy!’