A fortnight after the water struck south and central Kashmir, the heart of Srinagar, Lal Chowk, is still inundated. Men and women, some of them weeping, wade through the water and brush past the floating bodies of animals as they try to find missing family members and friends.
Uptown, at Sanat Nagar, a leading industrialist joined the queue for handouts of food at a relief camp. On September 7, the former director of India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan Farooq Nazki stood on the roof of his house in Shivpora, which borders the Indian Army’s 15th Corps Headquarters, and wailed for help. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was undertaking an aerial tour of the area at the time and before the communication system across Kashmir was blacked out, Nazki sent out a desperate missive: Modi ji, mujhay aur meri family ko bachaiye.”
A man in Srinagar clings to a rope to avoid being swept away by the torrent. PHOTO: REUTERS
At the same time, a senior DIG rank police official and his guards were gesturing frantically from the ground, begging for an airlift as helicopters circled above them. A woman at a relief camp wailed as her two-year-old child had been left behind while she was being rescued. It was an apocalypse. The disaster, which has affected nearly five million people, has proved a great social leveler.
According to initial estimates, the floods have wreaked havoc worth at least one trillion rupees in Kashmir. Government officials say 2,600 villages have been affected – 1,700 in Kashmir and the remainder in Jammu. Over 390 villages are fully submerged. A member of the Kashmir Center for Social and Development Studies Shakeel Qalander said the damage to the housing sector alone is to the tune of Rs300 billion. And all traces of agriculture in the region’s bread basket – South Kashmir – have been damaged. More than a century ago, British officer Sir Walter Lawrence accused the administration of Maharaja Pratap Singh of blissfully sleeping while a deluge reached Srinagar in 1893. Exactly 121 years later, the government of Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah was not only caught off guard by the disaster but had woefully and inefficiently underestimated the problem. On September 1, just two days before the rains, the government was preparing a note for the cabinet to declare much of Kashmir ‘drought affected’.
A Kashmiri man rows a makeshift raft carrying a woman and a child. PHOTO: REUTERS
A former bureaucrat and close confidante of the Abdullah family, BR Singh, borrowed from the words of Oliver Cromwell in an editorial in Greater Kashmir, saying to Omar: You have sat too long for any good you have doing lately….depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.
The waters were neither a cloud burst nor a flash flood. The River Jhelum started rising slowly and steadily due to the rains that lashed Kashmir from September 1 onwards. On September 5 and 6, South Kashmir was inundated. The government took no precautions until the waters came to central Kashmir and Srinagar city on September 7. The flood gates remained unmanned. There was no mobilisation to patrol the bunds or have sandbags ready. And the fact is that over the past 60-plus years, most of the canals and flood channels in the city have been blocked in the name of development. The city known as the Venice of the East is now a city of concrete and filth.
Painfully, attempts were being made to dehumanise Kashmiris in the name of exclusivist nationalism. Sadistic pleasure was drawn from the colossal damage. No doubt that Indian defence forces rescued people at many places, but this was portrayed as a ‘favour’. India’s national TV channels debated over whether the army’s efforts would generate sympathy for the army!
A girl in Indian administered Kashmir is rescued. PHOTO: REUTERS
Some reported that Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik and pro-freedom leader Syed Ali Geelani were rescued by the Army. But both were sitting in their homes at the time. Even if they had been rescued, is it not the duty of the Army to save even its enemies in the hour of disaster as per the Geneva Convention? By behaving in this way, the Indian government lost a chance to show a softer side of itself to the Kashmiri people, who so far have seen the Indian tri-colour fluttering only on Army bunkers or atop interrogation centres.
There was no mention in the mainstream media of thousands of local volunteers who, without any training, rescued thousands with whatever material they had – plastic tanks, wooden rafts etc. A young lawyer Sajjad Mohiuddin, for instance, took a flight from Delhi to Srinagar and purchased a boat for Rs2.5 lakh with his savings. While the authorities said they could not reach Lal Chowk due to the strong water currents, this young man and journalist Shujaat Bukhari rescued 500 people over three days. Bengali and Bihari labourers, tourists from Gujrat, Delhi, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, and a Hindu priest heading a group of pilgrims from North India, stranded for seven days without food or water, were rescued by these two men.
The environment cannot be the sole concern of a few NGOs. The reality is that almost all the Indus line glaciers, sources of water to Kashmir and Pakistan’s rivers, are melting and receding at an alarming rate. Barring certain water bodies that are spring-fed, most of the streams of the Indus water system are glacier-fed. Since early melting of these glaciers triggers massive discharge in the rivers, the water bodies lack the adequate quantity once agricultural activity begins.
Barely 20 years ago, the snow line to the Kashmir valley’s east was just near to Pahalgam and Sonmarg (3,200 metres). Currently, the line has receded to the Shiashnag area which is at an altitude of 5,000 metres. The same is true of the Pirpanjal mountain range in the west where the snow line was above Kongwatan and Zaznar (3,000-3,500 metres). Most of the glaciers from Harmuk to Drungdrung, including Thajiwas, Kolahoi, Machoie, Kangrez and Shafat, have significantly receded (4,000-5,000 metres) over the last 50 years.
Fifty years ago, the Chenab Basin used to have about 8,000 sq km under glaciers, permanent and ephemeral snow cover, as compared to the present 4,100 sq km. In the Pirpanjal range, there is hardly any glacier remaining at the top of this mountain range.
While Srinagar was flooding, Prime Minister Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif made offers of assistance to each other. One hopes this bonhomie runs deep in order to evolve a sustainable cooperative mechanism beyond the Indus Water Treaty to govern and protect resources, across the Line of Control.
The writer is the Chief of Bureau in New Delhi of DNA, a leading English language publication of Mumbai. He is originally from Kashmir.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2014.