Yeoman service

Print edition : October 17, 2014

A rescue operation involving the Army in Srinagar on September 13. Photo: Adnan Abidi /REUTERS

THE unprecedented havoc wreaked by the Jhelum river in Jammu & Kashmir saw the Indian armed forces launch one of its biggest rescue and relief operations ever in the State. The operations, christened Operation Megh Rahat and Operation Sahayata and involving all the three wings of the defence forces, brought people out of their marooned localities and provided them shelter, food, water and medicines. Had it not been for the defence forces, the casualties would have been much higher than the 215 reported so far. While the civilian administration was conspicuous by its absence for the first few days, the defence forces were already in action.

By the time the operations concluded formally on September 19, over 2.37 lakh people had been rescued from different parts of the State by the armed forces and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). Not only the Army and Air Force, but also the Navy participated in the rescue and relief operations: three teams of naval marine commandos, called Marcos, were pressed into service in the Watlab, Widipura and Tankpura areas.

The armed forces took care to provide critical relief materials as well. Since water-borne diseases are a problem that arises immediately after floods, the forces took care to airlift and install reverse osmosis (RO) plants at different parts of the State. By September 16, it had lifted from Hyderabad to Srinagar 20 RO plants with a capacity to filter 400,000 litres of water a day and four RO plants from Delhi with a capacity to filter 100,000 litres of water a day. Besides them, 13 tonnes of water-purifying tablets and six water filtration plants with a capacity to filter 1.2 lakh bottles of water a day were sent earlier to Srinagar. Heavy-duty suction pumps were also transported from Jodhpur (Rajasthan) and Raipur (Chhattisgarh) to the Valley to aid the civilian administration clear the waterlogged areas.

More than one lakh blankets, donated by different organisations, were distributed by the forces. Eighty medical teams of the Armed Forces Medical Services worked round the clock to tend to the sick. The Army established field hospitals in Avantipur, Pattan, Anantnag and Old Airfield areas, which provided round-the-clock medical aid to the needy. Two field hospitals with laboratory testing equipment were established in Srinagar too. Rapid Action Air Medical Teams were constituted by the Air Force.

The forces deployed 45 transport aircraft and helicopters of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation Corps. The Army deployed around 30,000 troops for the rescue and relief operations. The aircraft and helicopters carried 3,887 tonnes of relief materials and made 2,633 sorties. A total of 224 boats of the Army and 148 inflatable boats of the NDRF were active round the clock for rescue operations.

The forces also established 19 relief camps in Srinagar and Jammu regions where thousands had taken shelter. They were provided food and medicines from the forces’ own stock.

The forces, simultaneously with the rescue and relief operations, launched the restoration of snapped road and communication links. The Jammu-Srinagar national highway, which had been totally blocked, was opened to traffic on September 16 itself by the sustained efforts of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and Army engineers. The road had remained completely blocked for days as over 300 metres of it had been washed away near the Ramban area after a massive landslide. BRO personnel and Army engineers, working day and night, created a new passage through the treacherous mountain slope, and traffic was restored. Five task forces of the BRO, which included 5,700 personnel, were deployed in various parts of the State to restore road connectivity. The BRO personnel and Army engineers also reconstructed various bridges across the State, providing crucial linkages to people cut off in remote areas.

The rescue and relief operations by the armed forces continued despite a few divisive forces resorting to stone-throwing and puncturing of the rescue boats. On September 17, Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik forcibly took charge of a rescue boat and instructed the personnel to distribute relief materials according to his instructions. Earlier, on September 13, Yasin Malik’s supporters took charge of a rescue boat which was taking an ailing woman to a field hospital, despite protests by those being rescued. On another occasion, supporters of Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq shouted slogans against the Army teams and stopped them from rescuing people in the Jamia Masjid area of Srinagar.

On a couple of other occasions, Army teams were pelted with stones. “But such instances were few and, most importantly, the local people did not support such elements. They preferred to side with the Army in its rescue mission,” said a senior Army official in Delhi, who was in charge of the operation. According to him, the Army chief, who had visited the area, had given specific instructions to the troops not to get provoked by such actions. There was no truth to the accusations that the forces rescued people selectively, he said. “The old, the sick, women and children were given priority, but that is standard protocol,” he said.

An interesting fallout of the tragedy has been the unprecedented rapport the forces have developed with the common people. The State had never before been ravaged by such a massive natural disaster, and the people were therefore little prepared for it. The forces are hoping that people will not be so hostile to them now. All this when the Army itself has suffered heavy casualties in the flood as many cantonment areas across the State were flooded. “We will look at that once this exercise gets over,” said the Army spokesman.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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