By Shahid Lone
It was the first week of September and the autumn was just showing its arrival signs, and people from different professions in Jammu and Kashmir were busy in their present and future planning and plethora of other activities. Although the officials at department of Jammu and Kashmir had the prior information about the coming of floods four years earlier, they didn’t pay heed to this information and then what started and looked like as a slight drizzle in its earlier moments turned into a mammoth flood encompassing the whole state. The rivers and its tributaries which had dried up in past sixty years within no time were flowing over and above the danger mark level.
The torrential rainfall took whole Jammu and Kashmir and the Azad Kashmir under its shade. By September 2014 nearly 280 people were killed in parts of Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of villages were hit across the state and left quite a huge chunk of persons stranded. The road connectivity came to a hault because vital roads were submerged in water. The Jammu and Kashmir government had called it the equivalent of hurricane Katrina in Kashmir. In Srinagar most of the areas were submerged. The river Jehlum spilled over Sonwar, Rajbagh, Jawaharnagar, Gogjibagh, Wazirbagh and other neighboring areas of the city. On the other side, the southern part of the valley got disconnected with Kulgam and its adjoining areas were hit worst. About 78 bridges collapsed, landslides occurred on the national highway which led to its closure for almost 10 days.
Since the monsoon rains provoked landslides and severe flooding in the valley, the Himalayan state long at the heart of a mutual hostility between India and Pakistan, more than one million people now lack basic services, electricity, food, water and shelter and as the crisis extends those on the dry lands have begun to fear disease and hunger. Not a single Kashmiri family has been untouched by this disaster.
The irony of the current situation is that the Indian army didn’t have to be called in to engage in rescue operations; they were already there. There is approximately 1 Indian security force personnel for every 8 Kashmiri civilian, and that only in times of relative peace and calm. While the Indian media, mainly Hindustan Times and Ndtv was reporting heroic rescue after heroic rescue by Indian army and national disaster response force, the reports which came from the trusted sources and natives of the land stated otherwise. The responses from the people of Kashmir towards Indian rescue forces was negative, citing that rescue teams just rescued the tourists and other non-Kashmiri persons.
In many ways these natural calamities are an opportunity of great equalizer; people were not protected by their wealth but rather everyone living in the affected areas have suffered. Thousands have and continue to wait for rescue with nothing to drink or eat for days, as they slowly and literally watch their lives being washed away. The Indian government was quick to come to the aid of Indian tourists trapped in Kashmir but the response for locals have been perceived far slower. Some of the residents complained time and again that once the camera lights of Indian media were turned off, the army and other Indian rescue teams also stopped. But it is hard to discern fact from fiction in these cases. Photo journalist Kamran Javed stated that the “the heroic rescue work is being carried out by local men and women” accusing Indian administration of utter failure.
“Failure” is perhaps the best and most suited word in which the rescue efforts of Indian government can be framed. According to Syed Adfar, a famous sociologist, “the entire defence budget of India is passed without any impediment and interference and the entire amount spent on Indian defence mechanism comes from the tax money of Indian citizens, and thus, Indian army and its allied wings are bound to perform the needed rescue efforts wherever possible and in no way they are to be praised for their current failure in Kashmir”.
There was no infrastructure to prevent flood damage despite a prescient 2010 flood control department warning. The already unpopular chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted that people should remain calm. It’s a wonder who in the valley would have read such a tweet since telecommunication lines and other internet services were down.
Instead of looking to the Indian government for help, Kashmiri’s are looking to each other and to other Kashmiris living in India and its international diaspora for help. In Srinagar, some residents have rigged makeshift catamarans out of foam and wood to carry their families and neighbours to the place of safety. The famous small shikara boats, normally a touristy and romantic way to take in the green Himalayan mountain views from Dal Lake are now a pivotal part of rescue efforts. Some youths of the downtown area whose areas were not inundated immediately came out of their homes and took out a small fleet of shikara drivers with them and started the rescue operations. They even rescued non-Kashmiri residents and tourists from Rajbagh area. These youths were not part of any international aid organizations, or any military or police force.
People from different parts of the globe wonder if the floods in Kashmir are the Modi administration’s Hurricane Katrina moment. New Orleans, a city of about half a million, was hit by a devastating hurricane in 2005. Floods and damages could have been mitigated but for faulty levees built by the United States Army Corp of engineers, federal, state and local authorities, particularly (FEMA), were slow and bumbling in response to the hurricane and its aftermath. Similarly, flood waters in Kashmir reached 18 feet having submerged homes, schools, cars, houseboats and shops.
Even as the Indian Prime Minister Naredra Modi was saying aloud in the White House that how the heroic acts were performed by its soldiers in the Kashmir Valley, the international press asked a question that “ if the Indian government is so generous towards Kashmiris, then why it did not allow the international aid and assistance” into the valley. The government’s response to these floods provide a pivotal moment in Kashmir’s relationship to India writ-large. Modi’s failure to respond to these floods effectively may be just the fodder that some vested interests in and outside Kashmir needed to point to an Indian central government that does not care about the people of Kashmir or Indian Muslims, in general.
Shahid Lone is a Research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is a regular writer on politics and related subjects. Views expressed are personal