Natural disaster

Deluge & death

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Boats and rafts carry people to safety on the submerged Srinagar-Baramulla Highway on September 15. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Army jawans ferry flood victims in Srinagar's Wazirbagh area on September 14. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Army jawans ferry flood victims near the submerged Lal Ded Hospital, the only government maternity hospital in Srinagar, on September 14. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Srinagar and many other parts of the Kashmir Valley turn into a veritable death trap as Jammu & Kashmir is hit by the State’s worst floods in a century.

“ZINDE Rood Setha Chu” (We are alive, it is enough) is the line that has replaced traditional Kashmiri greetings these days. Stories of despair and hope mingled together for more than three weeks as floods ravaged parts of south and central Kashmir. The State capital, Srinagar, went under flood waters. All the institutions of power and governance, from the Civil Secretariat to the High Court, and Lal Chowk, the business district, were under water for more than 15 days. As I write these lines, displaced and distressed people of posh neighbourhoods such as Raj Bagh, Jawahar Nagar, and Gogji Bagh and some parts of the newly built Bemina locality are still dealing with waterlogged lanes. “It is not just the flood. It is something beyond human comprehension,” Gull Mohammad Wani, an 80-year-old farmer, told me in Shamspora village in south Kashmir. These were the worst floods he had ever seen.

The floods exposed the State government’s unpreparedness and its inadequate mechanisms to deal with natural calamities. There were no weather warnings though the India Meteorological Department (IMD), whose building was also flooded, insists that it had done its job. From September 1 to 6, incessant rains lashed the Valley. The water levels at the gauging stations at Sangam and Ram Munshi Bagh steadily went up. People in flood-prone areas were preparing to shift their belongings to the upper floors of their houses, but they were too complacent. By September 6, the divisional administration had lost contact with its offices in Anantnag, the main district headquarters in south Kashmir. “We cannot get through to officials such as the DIG, the SSP or the Deputy Commissioner in Anantnag,” a senior official told Frontline on September 6 as “SOS” calls kept his cell phone and those of his colleagues busy. People were calling for help to rescue their relatives living in the flooded areas. “It is a bad situation. We have lost contact with the south, and God knows what will happen.”

At the gauging stations, waters of the Jhelum showed no sign of receding. But the government was still inactive. There were only assurances and no concrete measures even when the river started breaching its banks, water levels rose in Batwara and Shivpora in Srinagar, and Raj Bagh and Lal Chowk areas in the city got flooded. On September 7, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said the situation was unprecedented but asked the people not to panic. “This is an unprecedented situation & we are doing the best we can under the circumstances. Please don’t panic, we will reach you, I promise,” he wrote on Twitter. Government officials claim that people in certain areas had been asked to get ready to leave their homes but “they were not prepared”.

“No one told us about any threat, and we have been living here for 60 years. We never had any experience of flooding. It was the government’s responsibility to educate us,” said Farooq Ahmad, a middle-aged man who spent four sleepless nights in the attic of his two-storey house in Rajbagh.

Defending his government, Omar Abdullah told a local newspaper that there was no general alert in Srinagar, but residents of Indira Nagar and Shivpora had been alerted. “Did they vacate?” he asked rhetorically. He claimed that when the capital was flooded, he had no contact with 90 per cent of his Cabinet colleagues for more than 24 hours.

In the absence of any information from south Kashmir in the first week of September, the intensity of the rain could not be estimated. In that week alone, scores of villages in Kulgam, Pulwama and Anantnag districts got inundated. In Kulgam, at least three villages were completely washed away. Some villages close to the Srinagar-Jammu national highway have seen complete devastation. Houses, livestock, standing crops and businesses have all been destroyed. “Losses are huge. How can you estimate them so soon?” said Nazir Ahmad of Shamspora village. “In this village alone, we lost 50 cows, costing Rs.50,000 each.”

In central Kashmir, Narbal and Kawoosa villages are almost destroyed. Out of 4,000 houses, 800 are completely damaged. “Where will we go?” lamented a villager, Mohammad Subhan. “No one has visited us.” With winter approaching, the biggest challenge is to ensure that people whose houses have been destroyed or rendered unsafe are rehabilitated. Until September 24, the government had no specific plans for this and had no presence in more than 50 per cent of the flood-affected areas.

The floods inflicted on Srinagar city a misery worse even than that caused by the conflict that it has witnessed for 25 years. In the wink of an eye, the city seemed to turn into a lake. Cars huddled together in the gushing waters, collapsed houses, and people crying for help are some of the memories that people will be left with. Rajbagh, Jahawar Nagar, Gogji Bagh, Shivpora, Indira Nagar, Natipora, Nowgam, Lasjan, Lal Chowk, Baba Demb, Karan Nagar, Qamarwari and Bemina were the worst hit, with more than 5,00,000 people marooned for days. For the first few days, there was no help or rescue in sight. Power and water supplies had stopped, roads were under water, and there was utter helplessness all around. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Srinagar on September 7, he had to move back from the Humhama crossing and make an aerial survey from a helicopter.

For several days, babies crying for food and adults searching for drinking water and help to relocate were a common sight in Srinagar. A few National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) boats were pressed into service after two days, but these failed to cater to a population of nearly 13.5 lakh. By the time the Army came in, people had taken up the rescue work themselves. Young volunteers had no boats, but they improvised with rafts made of plastic drums, truck tubes, and wooden poles to reach out to stranded people. Thousands were rescued by them. The Army, the NDRF and the Air Force did rescue people, but given the deep trust deficit, allegations of selective help poured in from many areas. “They had lists of people that had to be rescued,” said Sikandar Ahmad, a resident of Shivpora. He said that the Army had a presence close to his locality but did nothing. However, his neighbour, Shakeel, said that the Army distributed food packets.

The Army’s 15 Corps headquarters is located in one of the worst-hit areas and was under water. With alienation from the government running deep, the Army faced resistance at many places. Some people who were trapped in Bemina said the soldiers came very late and rescued selectively. At some places the people showed food packets with expired shelf lives dropped by IAF choppers.

What deepened the popular anger was that national TV channels glorified the Army and Air Force operations and even discussed how Kashmiris should now be grateful to the Indian state. One television anchor went to the extent of justifying the continued application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act because the Army had (until then) rescued 60,000 people. The national media, especially the TV channels, hardly acknowledged the role of local people in the rescue work.

In Lal Chowk, the city centre, no rescue team reached the trapped people for six days. A group of 40 students from Jammu, who had come to Srinagar for counselling to get admitted to engineering courses, were trapped in Yatri Niwas. For six days, no one reached them. “We are in bad shape, please rescue us,” shouted Monika from Kathua when a volunteer’s boat made its way to Lal Chowk. Seventy-year-old Dulari Bhan was alone in her house on Exchange Road and had no food until a group of local volunteers reached her, after scores of SOS messages from her relatives in the United States. The Deputy General Manager of BSNL, Masharib Gul Mufti, waded through neck-deep water to reach his staff in BSNL quarters. He helped volunteers rescue 90-year-old O.N. Bhat and his wife. “There was no other way. We could do nothing but encourage them to move out through the water,” Mufti said. He led more than 20 people to safety. Tales of helplessness and horror came from every side and it was the people’s spirit that kept hope alive in Srinagar.

The health care system took the worst hit. Three major hospitals—SMHS Hospital, Lal Ded Maternity Hospital and G.B. Pant Children’s Hospital—were flooded and their patients and doctors were trapped inside. As the last phones died, thousands of people lost touch with their families. “It was no less than a doomsday situation,” said Dr Shehnaz Taing, head of the Gynaecology Department at LD Hospital. “There was utter desperation, utter helplessness. The situation was out of control, and everything went blank,” she said, recalling the horror that gripped 700 patients, attendants and doctors for days. The canteen was the first to get flooded and there was no food. Raja Muneeb, who was in G.B. Pant Hospital, saw 1,300 people weeping and wailing as the water rose to the first floor. “It was all dark and I don’t remember now what happened,” he said. Later, 150 infants were shifted to the Army hospital near by, but at least 30 could not survive the flood fury. Infrastructure worth Rs.300 crore perished in these hospitals. “It is a gigantic task to rebuild that, and until it is rebuilt, the people of Kashmir will suffer,” a doctor at SMHS said. With the threat of epidemics now looming, the absence of hospitals is a major concern.

The floods have badly hit infrastructure and businesses. According to government estimates, 2,34,516 structures in the Valley, excluding Srinagar district, have been damaged, 20,000 of these completely. “The damage to other houses and structures will be known only when the submerged areas are fully dewatered,” the State government told the court on September 22 in response to a public interest litigation petition. The local business community has estimated a loss of Rs.1 trillion. Shakeel Qalandar, former president of the Federation of Chamber of Industries Kashmir (FCIK), believes that it will take 30 years for Kashmir to get back to where it was on September 7. On the basis of a sample survey, he says that the losses are more than double the State’s gross domestic product. He told Frontline that 15 per cent of the 2,01,588 houses that the 2011 Census listed had suffered damage. That is, more than 30,000 houses. “We have more than half a million commercial establishments across all sectors and we estimate 1,00,000 have taken a hit.” He said to kick-start the economy again, the Centre should immediately announce a tax holiday, relax insurance and banking guidelines, and ask insurance companies to release payments without delay. “The government should declare it a national calamity and pave the way for international aid. Why are they shying away from that?” he asked.

Major floods have hit Kashmir after more than 50 years. A few years ago, engineers had warned that the Valley might face severe floods. There had been severe floods in 1902, 1955, 1957 and 1959. In the 1902 floods, most of Srinagar remained inundated for nearly two years and there were enormous losses. The other floods were less severe because of flood-management interventions. Rapid and unplanned urbanisation and government apathy towards preventive measures pushed up the destructive potential of the recent floods. In localities such as Raj Bagh and Jawahar Nagar, the challenge now is to drain the water out. Experts say that as in 1902, it may take years for the situation to be normal again.

The Valley’s drainage system is organised around the Jhelum river. The main river traverses a length of 241 kilometres from the source until it enters Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), connecting 11 less-developed drainage basins on its right bank and six on the left bank, covering a drainage area of 11,353 sq. km. It emerges as a placid and sluggish stream, changes into a submissive, lazy and navigable river, and crosses the Line of Control with roaring might. Kashmir owes its lakes and loops to this ailing river, whose water is unfit for human consumption.

The districts of Rajouri, Poonch and Jammu in the Jammu division witnessed flood fury a few days before Srinagar was inundated. At least 130 people, including 50 members of a wedding party, were killed.

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