Kashmir Scan, Oct 2015

Govt Sinks, People Rise

Kashmir FloodOn September 6, Kashmir was hit by the worst ever floods it has witnessed in a century. Two months since, people are yet to come to the grips of the post-flood life. What went wrong? Why did the government abandon people? And how unsung heroes rose to the occasion and came to the rescue of the deluged population? Faisul Yaseen reports.

Sitting on your laurels is a worthy cliché. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah-led government chose not to avoid it.

When south Kashmir was hit by floods on September 4, the government was caught pants down. The State administration’s poor response to south Kashmir floods brought an embarrassment to it and its claims of disaster preparedness. Two days later, when 70 percent of Srinagar, the summer capital of the State, was hit by floods, the government drowned even before the waters seeped into the low laying areas of the city.

4sris16On September 4, Minister of State for PHE, Irrigation and Flood Control, Nazir Ahmad Khan (Gurezi) said the water level of the River Jhelum had surpassed alarming levels and the situation was grave.

Khan said instructions had been passed to the administration to save the lives of people by evacuating them from flood-hit areas and provide them free food.

The minister said the government had set up control rooms across Kashmir and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had held a video conferencing session with every deputy commissioner and chief engineer.

Khan said had the government not carried de-siltation of rivers and flood channels, entire Srinagar city would have been hit by flood by now.

Two days later, almost entire Srinagar city was submerged in the flood waters. The situation would have not been as grave had the government paid attention to one of its own ministers when he raised alarm about the possibility of a major floods hitting Kashmir in 2010.

Being the then Minister for PHE, Irrigation and Flood Control, senior Congress leader and the incumbent Minister for Health and Medical Education, Taj Mohuiddin had mooted a proposal of Rs 2200 crore to the Government of India for carrying dredging of rivers, flood channels and other safety measures.

However, GoI only released Rs 100 crore to the State government.

Taj said dredging on rivers and flood channels had been stopped after Sham Lal Sharma took over as Minister for PHE, Irrigation and Flood Control. Taj blamed his fellow Congress leader Sharma for risking the lives of thousands of people by stopping dredging on rivers and flood channels.

“Weak spots were kept deliberately in rivers and flood channels,” he said. “When I was the concerned minister, we had repaired the weak spots.”

He said nobody pursued the issue with New Delhi after the new minister assumed charge of the ministry.

Taj also held Srinagar Development Authority (SDA) responsible for the crisis that the residents of Srinagar were caught in due to floods.

“Since 1935, the entire area from Lasjan to Bemina and from Nowgam to Peerbagh used to serve as the water absorption basin but SDA allowed constructions in the entire area,” Taj said. “SDA itself encroached upon the area and made shopping complexes.”

SDA had also set up its own office in a flood-prone area in Bemina.

Taj said when he was the concerned minister, he had taken up the issue and asked the government to stop constructions undertaken by SDA.

“Unfortunately, my suggestions were ignored,” he said.

The Congress leader said during the nineties, successive governments and the administration had allowed constructions in the flood basin, which had put the lives of people at risk.

“No constructions should have been allowed in the notified flood basins,” he said.

Taj said had the GoI released the Rs 2200 crore amount he had pitched for, the State government could have carried the dredging of all the rivers and flood channels.

“We could also have constructed a channel that could have been used for the outflow of the water besides the Jhelum, Doodh Ganga and the existing flood channels,” he said.

Minister for Finance, Abdul Rahim Rather said the State government had sent that proposal to GoI but the proposal was still pending with New Delhi.

Rather said New Delhi had raised many queries regarding the proposal and the project remained pending.

“It was Rs 2200 crore project and the money had to come from GoI as the State government couldn’t have arranged so many funds,” he said.

Rather said the State government had also raised this issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“We brought this issue into the notice of the prime minister when the Group of Ministers from the State met the PM in New Delhi,” he said.

That GoI did not pay heed to the State government’s proposal of dredging rivers and flood channels to prevent the flood was a pity. That State government was not prepared for the disaster even after the floods had hit south Kashmir was horrendous.

Had the State’s Disaster Management Authority that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah heads been proactive, the damage could have been limited.

Most people living near embankments said though rains were incessant and floods inevitable, the damage could have been restricted had the government been prepared.

“The government’s Flood and Irrigation department never carries repairs of the embankments and there is no such thing as a disaster management authority in Kashmir,” said Showkat Ahmad Bhat, a resident of old Barazulla locality of Srinagar uptown.

He said locals were caught unawares as authorities had not even sounded alert when water rose over the alarming levels.

A State-level executive committee for review and implementation of funds is also headed by the Chief Secretary and all Deputy Commissioners are the chairmen of the District Disaster Management Authority while the Divisional Commissioners head the authority for the provinces.

MoS (Independent Charge) Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation, Aijaz Khan said the government was prepared but the calamity was enormous.

“We have disaster managements committees in every district and appropriate funds for them but no one can predict of a calamity of this kind,” Khan said. “The revenue ministry gives appropriate funds to Irrigation and Flood Control department for repairing bunds and embankments.”

He said this time, water rose over the bunds and embankments and even the repairs could not have prevented the water from coming over into residential areas.

“The State has suffered a huge loss and these floods are the worst calamity I have seen all my life,” Khan said.

GoI releases funds to the State for the disaster management as per the requirements and norms fixed under the GoI Act.

Commissioner Secretary Agriculture, Asgar Samoon said everything was in place and government was prepared for disasters.

However, the government’s claims of everything being in place turned to be a damp squib as hundreds of people in south Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama were trapped and battling for survival while the district administrations remained inaccessible and failed to reach out to the flood-affected people.

With the flood bringing massive devastation in the four southern Kashmir districts, the government was unable to reach out to the people of these areas.

Minister for Social Welfare, and Public Grievances, Sakina Itoo, who represents Noorabad assembly segment of south Kashmir, said the damages were enormous and the government was trying to reach out to the people.

Minister for Public Enterprises, Hajj, Auqaf and Floriculture, and MLA Kokernag, Peerzada Muhammad Sayeed said the government could not do anything and the primary focus for it was to save the lives of people.

MLA Pahalgam, Rafi Ahmad Mir said he had brought the situation to the notice of the government but found that the government machinery was not enough.

MLA Kulgam and State Secretary of CPI (M), Muhammad Yusuf Tarigami, said it would be a huge catastrophe if the government failed to reach out to the trapped people.

What Tarigami said proved to be correct. The government failed to reach out to the people and the floods in south Kashmir ended with a catastrophe in Srinagar.

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On September 6 and 7, Srinagar was hit by floods affecting a million of its 1.4 million habitants.

While it would have been expected that the State government would fare better in Srinagar after its horrible show in south Kashmir, its performance was even worse.

The government and administration were caught unawares with the government failing to use its machinery to sound a red alert for evacuating the people from low lying areas of Kashmir.

Public address system was not used to alert the population and most people living in the danger zones slept without knowing the dangers of staying put in their habitations.

The government left the deluged population in Srinagar to fend for themselves with most of the cabinet colleagues of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and top bureaucrats abandoning the flood-hit Srinagar by flying out to Jammu and New Delhi.

Adding grist to the already burning mill, New Delhi based television channels started showing the images of the chief minister with Indian media persons in choppers dropping bananas and bread at a handful of deluged places.

As the choppers would drop the bananas, youth could be heard saying the ‘Banana Republic’ was dropping bananas and capturing it on television cameras for its audience.

The resentment against New Delhi started brewing even more as the troops of the Indian Army were seen carrying rescue operations in a handful of areas, mostly rescuing tourists, VIPs, beggars coming to Kashmir from the Indian mainland and a handful of Kashmiris as well.

The subject of most of the New Delhi-based news channels while covering Kashmir floods was not the flood victims but the Indian Army.

Instead of telling the masses about the tragedies of flood victims and their sufferings, New Delhi-based media focused its attention on singing eulogies for the Indian Army.

“There is a lot of resentment against the Indian Army particularly after the news channels started highlighting our efforts while ignoring the sufferings of the common Kashmiris hit by floods,” said a trooper, posted on duty on the Rambagh-Jawahar Nagar Bund, who was not authorized to talk to the media.

He said though the Indian Army was doing its bit to rescue the people, they could not match the job done by the locals.

Hundreds of youth from the outskirts of Srinagar visited the submerged areas of the city everyday and carried rescue operations with little resources available to them.

“Unlike the Indian Army and the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force), we don’t have sophisticated boats but we try to rescue as many people as we can by making several trips throughout the day,” said Niyaz Ahmad Dar of PadshahiBagh, drained from the day’s work of rowing his ferry while rescuing marooned people.

Apart from the local rescue teams, people from central Kashmir and north Kashmir areas like Chadoora, Chrar-e-Sharief, Budgam, Handwara, Kupwara, Sopore, Baramulla kept sending relief material for flood victims putting up in local relief camps while the government and the administration remained non-existent.

People displayed bonhomie and communal brotherhood with Sikhs putting up in Masjids and Muslims in Gurdwaras.

Local Muslim youth rescued hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus from various Indian states, and foreign nationals.

However, the New Delhi-based media did not find it worth reporting as it remained busy doing a free public relations exercise for the Indian Army even as troops were seen beating up locals for taking sacks of apple to flood victims accusing them of carrying stones to pelt at them.

The government absence created a situation wherein people were forced to run a parallel government if they had to save the deluged population.

And unlike the government, people did not disappoint.

Youth from downtown area of Srinagar came to City Center and uptown amid raging floods without any boats, communication network and infrastructure and saved thousands of helpless people caught in hospitals and their residences.

Youth from downtown areas, who Chief Minister Omar Abdullah government has been vindictive of by slapping cases after cases, stood tall and delivered when the bureaucrats, police officers and hospital administrators had given up on their responsibilities.

These youth turned out to the captains of a ship they were never asked to sail while the police officers, bureaucrats and administrators proved to be the rats who are the first ones to abandon the ship when the waters seep into it.

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The flood fury broke the back the business community as the residents alike and left over 281 dead of which 85 died in Kashmir valley while another 29 were reported missing.

Not that people of Kashmir are not used to encountering tragedies like this but the response of the government this time was miserable.

October 8, 2005 earthquake had already turned the lives of thousands of Kashmiris topsy-turvy and the government then too had disappointed the quake-hit population but this time, the government vanished from the scene all together not for days but weeks.

The government surfaced before the people 26 days after the floods with chief minister sending an elaborate bureaucracy led by Chief Secretary, Muhammad Iqbal Khanday to defend the government.

Khanday said that the government was never missing from the scene and put the losses suffered in floods at Rs 1 trillion including Rs 30 billion losses to residential houses and Rs 70 billion losses to businesses.

He termed Kashmir floods as an international disaster.

Few days later, the State government only sent a loss memorandum of Rs 44,000 crore to New Delhi.

After the floods, Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed the calamity as a “national disaster” but blocked international aid into Kashmir.

However, he announced Rs 1000 crore assistance in addition to Rs 1100 crore already made available to the State government through the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF).

CPI (M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury said if Kashmir was an integral part of India, it should be felt in the entire country.

Member of Parliament (MP) from Hyderabad constituency and President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, after touring flood-hit areas of Srinagar downtown and uptown said there was no trace of administration in the State.

After his day-long tour of flood-hit areas, Owasi said rehabilitation program could not be taken up under a non-existent administration.

Owasi, a three-time MP who was honoured with Sansad Ratna Award for overall best performance in 15th Lok Sabha in 2014, saluted the people of Kashmir for their spirit of sacrifices and commitment in rescuing each other.

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Two months after the floods, the State government is still unaware on what happened on the night of September 6 when floods hit the heart of Kashmir valley.

Commissioner Secretary Flood Control, Pawan Kotwal said what happened in the intervening night of September 6 and 7 was not known yet.

Kotwal said on September 6 evening, the water level in Srinagar at Ram Munshi Bagh was 22 feet and the government expected that it would go upto 23 feet, which, according to him, was manageable.

“Suddenly, water rose in the night,” he said.

“We kept monitoring the water level and kept informing people to leave for a safer place,” Kotwal said. “On September 6 night there are evidences of a cloud burst and water in Kounsar Nag, Vaishav, Ranbiar Nallah and other streams rose suddenly and then the water came to Jhelum and what happened after is yet to be known.”

Kotwal said Jhelum has a capacity of holding 35,000 cusecs of water and the flood channels a capacity of holding 15,000 cusecs.

“The flood brought 1.20 lakh cusecs of water, which was double the capacity of water that Jhelum and flood channels could retain,” he said.

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The floods rewrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with the business hub in Srinagar shifted from the City Center – Lal Chowk – to downtown.

Noted poet and satirist, Zareef Ahmad Zareef said though the city had shifted back to the real city, it was an “accidental shift”.

Zareef said following the floods, Kashmiris should take lessons where they should develop markets and establish residential colonies.

“Kashmir needs a political engineer who would hire social and technical engineers and create a Naya Kashmir not a political Naya Kashmir though,” he said. “The Naya Kashmir has to be created by our youth not a turncoat politician.”

Zareef rued over the fact that Srinagar, the city established by Emperor Ashoka Maurya, had been ruined by the politicians and administrators.

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While the floods brought devastation, there was also a silver lining with religious brotherhood at display.

Satish Koul and Reyaz Ahmad were among hundreds of people putting up at a relief camp setup at Gurdwara Shaheed Monga in Baghat area of Srinagar uptown.

The Gurdwara was a scene of communal brotherhood and bonhomie displayed by the people of Kashmir – Pandits (Hindus), Muslims and Sikhs.

Komal J B Singh, a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who hails from Baramulla, said: “Disaster has no religion. I’m a Kashmiri and when we went to rescue people, we didn’t see whether they were Sikhs, Muslims or Pandits. Kashmiriyat, not communal passions, prevail in Kashmir.”

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The floods brought to fore the religious tolerance in Kashmir. It also highlighted Chief Minister Omar Abdullah-led government’s criminal attitude toward the flood victims.

Huzaif Nazir, who was looking for the bodies of his two nieces, had to return disappointed from the Gupkar residence of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah after the officials there paid no heed to his pleas of help.

Nazir’s sister Kashifa, her three daughters six-months-old Rahat, two-year-old Sarwat and five-year-old Tarwat, and their 59-year-old paternal grandmother Hajira Begum were being rescued in a boat when it capsized near the Hurriyat Conference headquarters at Rajbagh.

While Kashifa and her eldest daughter Tarwat were rescued by their neighbours, Rahat, Sarwat and Hajira Begum drowned in the flood waters.

Hajira Begum’s body was found by locals onSeptember 19 evening and handed over to police.

However, Rahat’s and Sarwat’s body remained untraced.

Huzaif filed the missing report of his two nieces at Rajbagh Police Station and was looking for their bodies since September 7.

Huzaif said he had knocked doors of all the authorities for help but everyone had disappointed him.

“I visited the chief minister’s residence at Gupkar, I visited Hari Niwas where all the top politicians and bureaucrats had went to participate in a meeting, I begged the Director General of Police, Rajendra Kumar for help, I begged Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, Farooq Shah, Chief Secretary, Iqbal Khanday and MLA Amira Kadal, Nasir Aslam Wani, but everyone ignored my pleas,” he said.

After being turned down by the government and authorities, Huzaif started to look for the bodies of his nieces’ on his own and found them after days of searching.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not allow international aid into Kashmir but he came to celebrate Diwali with flood-hit Kashmiris and announced a Diwali gift of Rs 745 crore from the PM’s Relief Fund for them.

The prime minister said the package includes an amount of Rs 570 crore for the repairs of houses damaged in recent floods and Rs 175 crore for renovation of six major hospitals damaged in Kashmir valley, Leh and Jammu.

Modi said this Rs 745 crore assistance was not part of the loss memo of Rs 44,000 crore submitted to by the State government to New Delhi, which was still being reviewed by Government of India.

The prime minister announced free replacement of books and notebooks to all children upto primary and upper primary level schools.

Modi was also critical of the State government and said they need to spend the amount quickly for the flood-hit people of the State.

This was Modi’s second visit to Jammu and Kashmir after the recent floods.

On his first visit to Kashmir after floods onSeptember 7, Modi had announced Rs 1000 crore special assistance package for rehabilitation of the flood victims.

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The deluge brought death and devastation. While the government sank in the great floods of Kashmir, ordinary people rose to the occasion and delivered goods. They showed professionals what professionalism means. They showed administrators what administration is and the government how governments are run. Unlike the chief minister and his government, they avoided sitting on their laurels.

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