How the deluge drowned an administration

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The massive flood in Jammu & Kashmir has so far left over 200 people dead, rendered several hundred missing and in an age defined by advances in communication technology, completely cut off hundreds of villages and towns in the state from the outside world. A week of torrential rains resulted in the water levels in the Jhelum — the main source of irrigation and drinking water in the Valley — reaching unprecedented levels. Most parts of Srinagar, along with over 2,000 villages, lie submerged under several feet of water and silt. The flood has also affected parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), where 64 people have lost their lives and over 24,000 have been displaced.

The facts take the blame straight to the state government’s doorsteps. Not only was there no policy on flood control, but it also seems that alerts and warnings were ignored.

On 4 September, Budgam and Kulgam districts in south Kashmir were the first to come under the wrath of the Jhelum as the water gushed into the towns and villages. In an unbelievable display of callousness, government agencies simply failed to see what lay ahead. Within three days, not just south Kashmir, but also large parts of Srinagar went under water. Ground reports by journalists show a complete absence of state forces. Even platoons of the Indian Army stationed in Srinagar found themselves in a precarious situation of having to save their own on the first day of flooding.

According to Srinagar’s Senior Superintendent of Police (Police Control Room) Imtiyaz Hussain Mir, nothing had prepared the state for this “big a calamity”. “Everything, even the residences of senior government officials, including that of the Director General of Police (DGP), came under the water,” says Mir, even as he coordinates with his colleagues on the ground. “All communication broke down, crippling us completely. Rescue operations have proved to be a herculean task, but we are putting all our energies into it.”

However, Naeem Akhter, a senior leader of the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), alleges a complete breakdown of the state apparatus. “The first thing to drown was the administration. It was not a flash flood. The flood built up over a period of one week,” says Akhter. “Traditional wisdom tells you that Srinagar is a flood-prone area… When the final alert was sounded, the flood had already crossed Sangam (the meeting place of the Jhelum’s tributaries near Anantnag).”

Akhter doesn’t spare the police or the armed forces either. “Peer Ghulam Hassan Shah, former DGP of the state, too, was trapped in the third floor of his house. No policeman went to bring his family to safety. His son, who flew in from the US, had to make some local arrangements to get the family out. As for the army, they have helicopters and boats. They have also been trained in conducting rescue operations. But their action, too, started a little too late. The real heroes are the local boys who have volunteered in the rescue ops,” says the PDP leader.

Congress leader Salman Soz, whose party is a partner in the coalition government led by the National Conference, admits that only the volunteers, the army Submerged Following a week of torrential rains, water from the Jhelum river flooded most parts of Srinagar and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) are active on the ground and not the J&K government. “The government had no capacity to deal with a flood of this scale. It had no command and control system in place. They could have set up a system at the airport. The state government is supposed to have a critical role in such situations. The local authorities, too, have a crucial role. But they are not on the ground. The police are largely absent. Even some senior government officials had to be evacuated. I blame the illegal and unplanned construction in Srinagar for the floods,” says Soz, who had been part of a delegation that participated in a meeting of the World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Risk Management project in Moldova. Soz claims that he had warned the Omar Abdullah government on 5 September that the flood was going to cause “massive damage”.

That was not the only warning that the government ignored. Earlier, in 2010, the J&K government’s flood control department had filed a report in which it had predicted that “within five years”, there would be a massive flood in the Jhelum that would “completely submerge Srinagar” under “150,000 cusecs of water”. The report had suggested elaborate dredging and building of flood-control infrastructure in several stretches of the river at a cost of Rs 2,200 crore. After initially ignoring the report, the J&K government had later submitted it to the Centre, which in turn had sanctioned Rs 97 crore. Two dredgers were bought from a US-based company at a cost of Rs 12 crore and dredging was done in parts of Baramulla and north Kashmir. However, the Centre discontinued the funds and the report, which had also recommended building basic infrastructure to cope with flooding at a cost of Rs 500 crore, got stuck in the Planning Commission and the Union Ministry of Water Resources, pending “queries”.

According to analysts, the main reason behind the Centre’s attitude was the fact that the Indus Water Treaty, which India and Pakistan had signed in 1960, allocates the three rivers — the Jhelum, the Chenab and the Indus — entirely to Pakistan. The Jhelum, which originates at Verinag in south Kashmir, has four streams — Sundran, Brang, Arapath and Lidder — in Anantnag district. Flowing north, the river is the main source of irrigation and drinking water for the Valley, and from Wular lake near Sopore, it flows into PoK. The treaty bars India from making any commercial construction on the rivers, but it has also made the Central government wary of investing in flood control in the Jhelum or the Chenab.

While the role of the Centre is definitely questionable, the state government’s policy on land adjacent to that Jhelum has been extremely opportunistic. Poor urban planning as well as arbitrary permissions for commercial constructions on the banks of the Jhelum and the flood channels have destroyed all the waterways and channels through which excess water flow in the river used to get diverted. As journalist Iftikhar Gilani, a former resident of Srinagar, notes in a recent article, the city’s waterways have over the years been converted into roads — an egregious example of myopic urban planning. “The network of canals in Srinagar like Nala Amir Khan, Gilsar, Kuta Kul, Choonth Kul are all drainages. Wetlands Hokarsar and Narakor, Anchar and Brari Nambal are now garbage dumps. A splendid Bemina locality stands on a wetland. In the apple town of Sopore near Wular lake, the tehsil office and a shopping complex have come up on a waterbody (called) Bogh,” he observes.

So far, the Indian Army and the NDRF have reportedly rescued 1,10,000 people from inundated houses. Most of them were stuck on the second or third floors, and in the worst cases, on rooftops. Camps have been set up in Rawalpora, Wanbal, Rangreth, Sanat Nagar and Nageen areas of Srinagar. The famous Hotel Broadway at the city centre remains half submerged under water. The Indian Air Force has air-dropped more than 550 tonnes of relief material and 80 medical teams are providing emergency health services. A total of 314 boats, along with one marcos team, have been engaged in rescuing lakhs of people who are still stranded. The communication system continues to be down, while blame games and petty politics play out on the television screens.

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