by Lubna Reshi
Srinagar is not the same as when I left in mid-August. I feel like I have returned to a warzone. Devastation and desolation is overwhelming and Kashmir, known for its serene environment, is no longer welcoming. Everything in the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir has been left barren by the floods which hit the city on September 7, 2014.In recent years, flooding throughout the region has increased and many believe it may be linked to climate change. But, lack of management is considered to be a key factor in the tragedy befallen on the state of Jammu and Kashmir. "The disaster management of the state is rudimentary. The State has not been prepared to handle such extreme rainfall events. In fact, [Jammu and Kashmir] does not have a flood forecasting system," says Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and head of its climate change team.
While in Sweden in August at a leadership program, I had no news of my family for the first five days of floods. My cousins living outside Kashmir would console me when they themselves had no news of family back home. Whatever information I could get was through Internet postings by Kashmiri’s living outside. To catch a network to call me, my family scaled a mountain. Shortly after hearing them speak, the network went off. However, it was satisfying to learn that they were fine.
This year’s flood was the worst in our region in 60 years and the economy of Kashmir is the worst hit. It is believed that Kashmir has been pushed back nearly 100 years by this disaster.
As I move through the city, there are make-shift tents almost everywhere. Relief camps have been run in mosques, schools, and other community buildings for those who have lost their homes. Recounting his tale of terrors, Zubair Bhat, my friend, tells me: “There was nothing but water. It was in my colony; it was in my garden and it was in my house.”
Zubair saw water growing inch by inch devouring house after house. “We watched it swelling and consuming everything. I hoped that it would not enter my house but by the evening everything was floating in water.”
Asiya, a cousin from Jawahar Nagar, cannot get her mind off of the moment she saw her house collapsing. Torrents of tears flow through her eyes as she recalls that evening. “I watched it falling like house of cards.”
Water headed towards her house with such a gushing speed that she had no time to pack her valuables. “By the time my husband and brother-in-laws came to inform us about floods it had already made an entry into my home.”
Asiya lives with her parents now and is hopeless about rebuilding her life again. “Whatever we had earned all these years was taken away by the water. We are left with no money to erect it again.”People have begun to recuperate from the damage they met but the relief they get from the government is not sufficient to cover the need. So far, the government has covered 1.5 lakh affected families (150,000) while the number of houses damaged was 2.4 lakh (240,000), as reported by Greater Kashmir, a local newspaper in Kashmir. The government has only provided 75,000 INR ($1,219 USD)to those who have completely lost their abodes and 3800 INR ($62 USD) for those whose houses had been partially damaged – but people say they can never build their houses again with such meagre amounts.
“We have not lost any small thing which can be brought back with a few bucks. Government should know what we have lost,” says Farooq Ahmad, a resident of Jawahar Nagar. The Indian government has also been widely criticized for the delayed response to the disaster that has put life on halt.
People are aghast over the response of government. “First they left us to die and now they aren’t coming forward to help us,” writes blogger Sakooter Speaks. She, along with her two kids, were rescued out of her home by her husband’s friend, not by government-appointed rescuers.
As the water levels became fiercer, the Army was called in. The Army, which is notorious for carrying out human rights violations in Kashmir, were portrayed as heroes by the media. However, the situation on the ground was quite the contrary. “We heard and saw helicopters move in the sky. Some people took out flags with red cloth and started waving them to get attention. The helicopters obviously were not interested in saving any of us,” writes Sakooter.
Khalida, who lives with her two kids in Bemina area of Srinagar, says: “I was stranded on the top floor of my house for five days with my two kids.” For three days she survived, living on leftover pieces of bread. As she saw the Army boats passing by, she sought help from them, which proved to be futile.
“The troopers who were carrying out the so-called rescue ops came near my house. I told them my children are starving. They assured me to return with some food but were never to be seen again. Had it not been for the locals, my children would have been no more today.”
Kashmiris – be it behind laptops screens updating the situation, mobilizing the relief, battling the water on the ground, or raising money in foreign lands – did all the rescuing. When there were no resources, groups of youth took to the street and began volunteering in rescue operations. They discussed their course of action through social networking sites and in person. They branched out to different areas affected by the floods and rescued thousands of people. Had they waited for authorities to take the charge, scores of people would have lost their lives.
"We couldn't have waited for government measures for it would have been too late," Burhan, one of the volunteers, states. According to Naqash Rohan, a blogger and a volunteer, in one part of Jawahar Nagar alone 40 houses collapsed.
This natural calamity tested the patience of the Kashmiri people. When rescue was not timely, people helped themselves. They made their own boats – some were made out of water tanks and some by tying water bottles to a pile of mattresses.One of the main criticisms against the government is that it did not sound out a warning or begin evacuating people when meteorological forecasts had predicted a long spell of unending rain. When the flood struck, the authorities, by their own admissions, were also stranded and the government went into limbo. Public anger rose after reports surfaced that ministers and their families were evacuated first and moved to Jammu and Delhi.
Many say that it is ironic that at the time of crisis the only government reaction, which came from Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, was a tweet which reads: “please don’t panic, we will reach you, I promise.” But after this he abandoned everybody and was only seen moving around in a chopper, air dropping relief.
When Manzoor Ahmad, stranded in the attic of a children’s hospital in Srinagar, heard a plane hovering over hospital, he was shocked. “I saw Chief Minister Omar Abdullah with my own eyes. I tried to get his attention but he changed the course of his chopper.”
According to a study conducted by a group of volunteers titled ‘Kashmir Floods: A Rapid Assessment,’ just 2 percent of the flood victims were saved by Indian forces while the rest were all rescued by the local volunteers. The report states that the claims made by media about rescue operations were only hype when in actuality no forces turned up for the help of people.
The study further notes that of the 26 refugee centres catering to the huge number of affected, 23 were run and managed by local volunteers. Of the remaining three, two were run by NGO’s, leaving only one operated by the state.
The people of Kashmir have met the worst disaster in decades from which it will take years to recuperate. There are many who are still putting up in tents by the road sides even as mercury is dipping in Kashmir. The government is out of reach to many and help is still needed.
Lubna Reshi is a researcher and a journalist. Being from a conflict zone she believes it is her responsibility to be a voice of the Kashmiri people so that they would be heard in world over. She has a PG in journalism from Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir and right now she is pursuing a M.Phil in journalism from University of Kashmir. She has written for various publications which include Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Dispatch, and Counsellor magazine. hervoice.co is an e-zine which she started last year to bring forth stories of Kashmiri women so that world will read them, know them, and someday come forward to help them. Follow Lubna on Twitter at @_LubnaReshi.