Jhelum’s Hungry Tide

Kashmir was caught in the deathly throes of a natural calamity, but the political battle between the Center and the state failed to devise an efficient strategy of countering it. The former’s reluctance to help and the latter’s unpreparedness, the misrepresentation of mainstream media, and ecological insensitiveness worsened the conditions. Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal reports …

Jhelum, the lifeline of Kashmir has always been a source of inspiration for poets, despite its waning beauty, marred by ecological vandalism. The river moves in a serpentine path from its source in South Kashmir, flowing through most parts of the Kashmir Valley and then moving across the Line of Control, snaking through the mountains of Pakistan Administered Kashmir and finally entering Punjab on Pakistan side. The mysteries of its waters have been unfolded many a times before, sometimes revealing its sublime utility and sometimes unleashing its fury, but never in the living memory of anyone did it sink half the Valley within hours as it did in the first week of September this year.

Much before Jhelum drowned parts of South Kashmir on September 6 and a day later hid half of the Srinagar city including its massive buildings beneath its muddy waters, devastatingly heavy rains had begun taking their toll across Jammu and Kashmir. By September 5, over 150 people had been devoured by flash floods and landslides triggered by four days of heavy rains, mostly in the Jammu region, and many areas across Kashmir Valley were getting badly inundated.

On the day the post monsoon rains began lashing in Jammu and Kashmir on September 2, gradually assuming the shape of a natural disaster, across the wide expanse of the Himalayas, I was participating in a closed door conference in Jammu on the political and environmental impact of militarisation in Siachen glacier. The discussions verved around the threat to Himalayan belt due to excessive human presence in the shape of militarisation, tourism and pilgrimage tourism. Jammu and Kashmir’s conflict ridden state, in that sense, already had the mighty potential of a disaster in the making, perhaps more lethal than the seething political volcano waiting to burst. Little did we know at that time that the volcano’s eruption had already begun.

Events unfolding in the following days with unstoppable rains that lashed most parts of the state included horrifying sequences of landslides and flash floods throughout the Himalayan belt, snapping road links between remote hilly areas. Tragedy after tragedy left a trail of deaths, collapsed houses, shocking tales, anguish and despair; all evoking hectic politicking with opposition parties nailing the state government for its lack of preparedness and asking that the case be taken up with the center for declaring it a national calamity. There was not a word from the Center. Instead, the Union Home minister Rajnath Singh was busy leaking out to the press that the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir had been directed to identify land for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. Many Kashmiri politicians including the chief minister retaliated, questioning the wisdom of raking up an issue when the state was caught in the throes of a calamity. A belatedly inspired Union government sent its Home minister on September 6, by which time things were already getting out of control with Jhelum’s waters oozing out on its banks and inundating vast areas of South Kashmir and Jammu Tawi river, often seen with just a trickle of water, ferociously consuming illegal structures in the catchment areas, tearing apart bridges and submerging villages.

No warnings were sounded even as the threat loomed, especially in the Valley, where unlike Jammu inclined topography and nature of soil, there is no outlet for the flooded water to escape. Jhelum was yet to unleash the final onslaught of its fury the next day. But it was expected. Yet no efforts were made to slow down its march and its lethality. Civil rights activist and medical practitioner Dr Javid Iqbal recalls being an eye-witness to the 1959 floods in Srinagar. He says that when the water level crossed the danger mark in the Jhelum, the then chief minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed stood in his rain boots in the rain “directing operations–he would touch a sand bag, hundred hands would extend help–bureaucrats, police officers, policeman. Within an hour the area had a raised bund to obstruct the bulge of Jhelum.” Bakshi repeated the act across the city along the Jhelum. One wonders, what happened to the huge supply of sand bags procured by government in the name of disaster management and flood control on which hundreds of crores of rupees are spent on an annual basis. Why were they still reserved in a time of emergency like the first week of September? Had the sand from the bags already slipped quietly into the Jhelum?

The chief minister appeared sheepishly before the television crews and assured that everything was under control – boats and teams ready for rescue operations and helplines were in place. He also appealed to the people to leave their homes in the flooding areas and shift to safer zones or move to the topmost floors and attics of their homes till rescue teams could reach them, assuring that everyone would be bailed out. Like everybody else, he had no idea of the epic proportions of the impending disaster. But, he and his government did nothing even in those last moments of emergency to minimise the wrath of nature’s fury. While helpline numbers were widely circulated, there were no clear warnings – no public address system, no use of electronic media or announcement by loudspeakers through mobile vans or from mosques and other religious places. No shelters were identified in the safer and drier patches for people wishing to flee their homes in panic.

The very next day when the water levels started rising phenomenally in the heart of Srinagar city – in its commercial hub in Lal Chowk, posh colonies of Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar, its military cantonment in Badami Bagh and adjoining localities of Shivpora and Indiranagar, people were left watching helplessly. The helplines were useless and jammed. By afternoon all telephone lines had come to a complete halt. There was no way to send SOS signals, except communicate through signs to the neighbours in the vicinity. There were no signs of rescue boats, just the pitter of the rain drops, the deathly sight of waters immersing two stories of their buildings and sense the panic of their hearts and numbness of their minds. Some screamed, some went frantic using pieces of cloth to wave out for help. But there was no one to hear or see, except the other distressed souls in the neighbourhood, whose panic resonated in actions similar to theirs in an unending echo. Those in three-storeyed buildings and higher had something to thank for, the rest scrambled for anything they could float on to reach higher buildings in the neighbourhood, used step ladders and ropes to move out of their windows and do the trapeze act to reach the taller houses of their neighbours. Their homes had been turned into islands under threat of sinking and collapsing.

The government machinery had collapsed much before that, inefficiency and complacency was now exacerbated by the fact that vital government installations, government machinery and government functionaries, from top to bottom, had been caught in the throes of the flood. The Prime minister’s visit further diverted the attention of whatever little administrative set up was available and by the time the Chief minister waved him bye, he found himself marooned in a government guest house, with two top officers and his fancy flying machine, in a somewhat drier part of the capital city with no functioning phones and handicapped without his twitter handle. It was later learnt that among the only 10 police wireless sets in working condition, one was with the chief minister. Some top officers of his administration, some ministers and legislators were cocooned in the safety of their homes in the neighbourhood or a fairly walk-able distance away in the Cheshmashahi area. But he chose to sit in suspended animation for the next few days.

When the state government was caught completely unaware and paralysed, the Center did not intervene and provide the much needed action with an immediacy it deserved. Rescue teams were sent in too late and were too less in comparison to the magnitude of the problem. 30,000 troops were pressed into service with choppers and just 370 rescue boats. The local volunteers had already jumped into the dangerous levels of the water to rescue people with whatever they could lay their hands on – boats, rafts and innovative contraptions made of wood fixed over plastic barrels. But they were too few and their resources too meager for a population of over 30 lakhs. The official action collectively had been delayed and not commensurate to the extent of devastation, making it much more difficult for the Indian Air Force and Army teams to carry on the rescue operations with a population turning hostile to it, courtesy television channels that put the tragedy out of focus and began eulogising the bravery of the rescue teams of Army and pedaling the discourse of utility of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, as if disaster management operations in rest of the country required similar draconian laws for the Army to operate. The specially flown in television crews and their politicised projection of the floods in Kashmir ended up exacerbating that level of hostility, further retarding the rescue operations and the Army’s operation was abruptly called off even before the people could be bailed out of the throes of flood and the looming threat of epidemics.

No doubt, the army personnel played a stellar role in rescue operations, despite its meager resources in face of the enormity of the tragedy; nothing exceptional about that as Army is the only agency that has the capacity and ability to do so in all disaster situations in the country. It performed well during the earthquake 2005 and Leh floods of 2010 and the role has been widely appreciated both in and outside the state, not because the situation was devoid of some incidents of hostility from the angry and frustrated trapped victims but because there was no twisted media projection. If the Center had used its pragmatism better and allowed the Army to continue, without of course the added burden of chopper flown television crews who intervened with their damaging discourse, things by now would have been far better in Kashmir in terms of rescue and relief.  Needless to point out that international agencies with more expertise have not been allowed to come and work in Kashmir on rescue, recovery and rehabilitation.

The gaps were sought to be filled with a jargon of “liberal assistance” from Central government and “in control of situation” made by the state government. The reality, however, remains different. The Center is yet to declare the unprecedented Kashmir floods as a National Calamity, despite Prime minister Narendra Modi’s promise on September 7, which could get things moving faster. The state government’s claims of control are haughty in the face of little relief work being done. The 100 camps to be set up are non-existent, 10 days after they were announced and relief work by volunteer groups is being obstructed through ill-planned complex procedures that they are required to follow. The tragedy has been further exacerbated by politicking and inefficiency.

The situation today is abysmally hopeless and one marked by complete chaos and very little action. Hope imbues solely in the form of the sea of humanity and compassion that emerged from the muddy waters. People in safer areas opened their doors to those being rescued from flooded areas, even to strangers; young men jumped in to do their bit in rescuing people even when some of them did not know whether their own families were safe; religious places have today becomes an oasis of harmony providing shelter to all communities.

Amidst this situation of both despair and hope, would the story of the many man-made follies behind the gigantic magnitude of the disaster be forgotten? Is it pragmatic to ignore crucial questions? Could we have avoided the disaster, or at least a disaster of this enormous proportion? Could we have done better to minimise its devastating impact in a multiple ways – brought down the scale of casualties, saved people from starvation and thirst, stalled the road of epidemics that have begun to unfold?

Much of this fury is the contribution of human beings. Ecological experts for long have pointed out the relation between changing modernistic lifestyles, reckless denudation of forest cover, polluting water bodies, melting glaciers and natural disasters. The Himalayan belt has been of particular concern among many ecologists ringing alarm bells which have fallen on deaf ears. Excessive focus on tourism, without factoring environmental sustainability into its promotion, has been a major reason that the Himalayan belt today is threatened. Pilgrimage tourism and trekkers have contributed generously to plastic waste – plastic bottles, wrappers and plastic covers marking the trail of the upper regions in the Himalayas and there has been no check even as geological experts and environmentalists, describing them as generators of “water bombs”, have warned of dangers of floods, cloud bursts and earth quakes, even as last year’s Kedarnath tragedy shook the entire nation. Kashmir tragedy was preceded by Kosi flooding on the Nepal-Bihar borders and is followed by the floods in the north-eastern states. The quick succession of disasters reveals the saturation point that the Himalayas have reached after massive vandalism.

The scenario in Jammu and Kashmir has been the worst. A slew of hydro-electric power projects without adequate scientific assessment have added to the threat perception, series of earthquakes in Bhaderwah in 2013 are linked to that. The situation is further exacerbated by excessive politicisation of pilgrimage tourism and its phenomenal increase as well as excessive militarisation of the region. On September 2, inside a hotel room we sat discussing the impending environmental dangers of militarised Siachen glacier and how it was one of the major contributors of melting glaciers, changing rain patterns, polluting rivers and depleting Himalayan ranges. A UNDP film screened at the seminar also revealed the connection between the vandalism of Himalayas and the environmental degradation of the Ganga, a point that the new central government with its ambitious Save Ganga project conveniently skips. As far as the Kashmir tragedy goes, it would also be difficult to ignore the massive contribution of the corruption and complacency riddled local government and the greedy insensitive population of the state leading to ill-planned cities with populations close to catchment areas of water bodies, poor drainage system, a phenomenal and shocking conversion of green spaces into monstrous concrete ghettos as well as a culture of generating plastic waste into the water bodies. Everything stems from greed – monetary, vote bank politics or politics of control.

Will these pertinent questions be in the public memory once the signs of ruin and devastation caused by the floods are healed for them to be addressed or will we willingly and callously bury them in the depths of the waters for them to rise again with a ferocity that we have just witnessed. Would it be as prophetic as the words of Kashmir’s most loved poet, Agha Shahid Ali:

After we died–That was it!–God left us in the dark.

And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the Executive Editor Kashmir Times and is a peace activist involved in campaigns for justice for human rights violation victims in Kashmir as well as India-Pakistan friendship. She also writes stories for children and adults.

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