Flirting With Disaster

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Washed away The deluge damaged 2.5 lakh houses in J&K , Photo: Faisal Khan
Washed away The deluge damaged 2.5 lakh houses in J&K . Photo: Faisal Khan

When flash floods hit Uttarakhand in June 2013, causing widespread devastation, a joint World Bank and Asian Development Bank team in partnership with the state government and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery conducted a rapid damage and needs assessment at the request of the Union government to rebuild infrastructure and assets lost to the natural disaster.

The team completed its work within a week and by August 2013, the detailed findings on the social and economic impact of the flooding was delivered to the state and the Central government in a comprehensive report. What is more, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank agreed to provide $400 million for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the disaster-hit areas.

Cut to 7 September 2014. A catastrophe of similar scale drowns Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, and obliterates villages and croplands across swathes of south and north Kashmir and parts of Jammu province. But nearly two months on, the only damage assessment done is by the state government, which has pegged the loss at 1 lakh crore and sought a package of Rs 44,000 crore from the Centre to kickstart the reconstruction and rehabilitation work.

The amount, according to Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami, is under the consideration of the Central government, a cold comfort to the thousands of homeless people staring at the harsh winter ahead.

The Rs 1,000 crore interim relief announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the day of the deluge itself is yet to be received by the state government. This has crippled the NC-Congress coalition government’s capacity to undertake a credible relief and rehabilitation effort.

On his Diwali visit to the state, a gesture that took people by surprise and also raised hopes of a handsome rehabilitation package, Modi announced yet another package worth Rs 740 crore — Rs 575 crore for the reconstruction of houses and Rs 175 crore for re-equipping the affected hospitals.

And three days after the prime minister ordered the package, the Election Commission announced the dates for the Assembly polls which, the critics of the exercise contend, will preoccupy the government machinery with the arrangements for the poll process and its gigantic law and order dimension.

“We have come to know that the Central government is yet to release the Rs 1,000 crore announced by the prime minister,” says Shakeel Qalander, a member of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies. “We don’t know when the subsequent Rs 740 crore will come. And on the Rs 44,000 crore package, the Centre is understood to have sought to verify the genuineness of the demand. How long will the victims have to wait?”

So far, the Jammu and Kashmir government has ordered the release of a meagre Rs 75,000 as the standard interim relief for the collapsed houses and around Rs 2,300- 3,800 for the partially damaged houses.

“This is but peanuts,” says Muhammad Ayoub of Bemina whose residence at Ibrahim Colony has suffered substantial damages. “Let alone repairs and rebuilding, this amount is not even sufficient to clear the wreckage.”

Similarly, across the residential colonies of Jawahar Nagar, Rajbagh and Gogjibagh, which together represent the ground zero of the devastation wrought by the deluge, the people have scoffed at the relief amount.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has, however, insisted that the amount is only an interim relief, “based on the ceiling under the State Disaster Response Force norms pending final package”. Drawing a comparison with the previous natural calamities in the state such as the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 Leh cloudburst when the compensation for a damaged house stood at Rs 1.3 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh, respectively, Omar made a case for a higher amount for the flood-affected houses.

In its memo to the Centre, the state government has sought Rs 9 lakh as compensation for the fully damaged pucca houses, Rs 6 lakh for fully damaged kutcha houses and Rs 4 lakh for the partially damaged houses. “How can Srinagar manage with just Rs 75,000 in 2014?” asked Omar.

But then, nothing has moved on the ground. All that is happening is the continuation of the relief effort, pitched in by local volunteers, ngos and, of course, by the separatist groups.

Moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has launched a housing initiative called Akh Akis (Kashmiri for one another) to provide shelter to people rendered homeless by the deluge. In the first phase of the initiative, 50-100 houses are being built “in some of the economically most disadvantaged localities that were severely damaged in the flood”.

“The focus will be on identifying and supporting Kashmiri families who, due to poverty and other dire circumstances, are truly not in a financial and physical position to rebuild their homes,” says the Mirwaiz. “The initiative is aimed at building homes, community and hope in Kashmir.”

Similarly, Hurriyat G chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani, JKLF supremo Yasin Malik and the leaders of yet another Hurriyat faction, Shabir Shah and Naeem Khan, have launched their respective relief efforts.

Geelani recently distributed cheques worth Rs 10,000 and relief kits among 50 homeless families of Pulwama and Anantnag. Jamaati- Islami, the J&K’s oldest religio-political party with a staunch separatist agenda, has been vigorously active on the scene. The party has leveraged its deep cadre base to launch sanitation drives in the flood-hit areas of Srinagar and other parts of the Valley, including hospitals, colleges and housing colonies.

This is the first time that the separatists in the Valley have engaged in a relief effort on such a large scale. Traditionally, the Kashmiri separatists have not been socially active, not even through the three successive summer unrests until 2010 when around 200 youth lost their lives and hundreds of others were injured, many of them losing their sight in either one or both eyes.

They have also build up a chorus for international aid in Kashmir, a demand that resonates with the people who are finding the Centre unwilling to allow it.

“Many foreign countries have offered large-scale relief for the flood-affected people of Jammu and Kashmir but India is placing unjustifiable restrictions in its way and doesn’t want this relief to reach the people,” Geelani said in a statement. “If this relief would have reached the people, the rehabilitation of the flood-affected people could have been completed in a few months.”

As this would reveal, two months after the flood, the reigning politics of the Kashmir conflict has completely taken over the recovery and rehabilitation operations in the state. There is an incapacitated government still struggling to find its bearings, there are the separatists trying to step into the breach and there is the Central government, which hasn’t quite delivered on its rehabilitation promise — all representing different ideological shades in political competition with each other and with interest in one another’s failure at the cost of Kashmir’s recovery.

And as the state heads into the Assembly polls, reinforcing this tension further and also shifting the political priorities, the factors unleashed in the situation are holding up the reconstruction at a time when winter is approaching and the homeless have nowhere to go.

According to the preliminary official data, the floods have impacted 12.5 lakh families, damaged 3.5 lakh structures, most of them residential houses, including 83,000 pucca houses and 21,162 kutcha houses, and 1.5 lakh partially damaged houses. There are similarly massive losses in agriculture, horticulture and tourism.

“Almost two months after the floods, we still don’t have a joint needs assessment involving the state and Central governments as well as national and international experts,” says Congress spokesperson Salman Soz. “I reject the BJP’s stand that international expertise isn’t needed. If international expertise was needed in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu, then why not in Jammu and Kashmir? Eighteen states, including Gujarat, are receiving foreign aid, so why not Jammu and Kashmir?”

As a result, the stalled rehabilitation has created a sense of vacuum on the ground. And among the many actors trying to address it, the state government has been the least effective.

“We need a pro-active government role in the reconstruction,” says PDP spokesperson Naeem Akhter. “Both the state and the Centre have to jointly pitch in the effort without any politics. And this is what makes elections a necessary evil. And if we don’t act fast, we would be only handing it to the separatist groups on a platter, who no doubt are doing a commendable job. Don’t forget that the Jamaat-u-Dawa (led by Hafiz Saeed) in Pakistan came into its own through its extensive relief effort after the 2005 quake.”

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