An on-ground report from the flood-ravaged towns and villages of Jammu & Kashmir
“We had just finished dinner, when a local sarpanch rushed to our village to warn us that the water had changed course and had started flowing towards us through a drain. I grabbed my two children and called out to my husband, who was watching television in another room, and we ran out of the house,” says Afroza, 35, now at a shelter in a government school in Dahrun, 15km from the district headquarters of Anantnag. Afroza’s newly constructed home in this south Kashmir village crumbled before her eyes on September 6, even as strong currents took all her worldly belongings and tore through 46 structures, including 18 homes, in the area. Torrential rain that had started on September 3 breached the banks of the Jhelum on September 7, which caused unprecedented flash floods.
With hundreds dead, lakhs stranded and property worth millions destroyed, Afroza’s story is echoed by many across the State. According to official estimates (at the time of going to press), 129 people lost their lives in the Jammu region alone, while over 46 were found dead in the Kashmir valley. As the waters recede, however, the number of rescued — 2.5 lakh and counting — by the Indian Army and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is expected to rise.
No one here has witnessed a natural disaster of this magnitude before. “I’m 72 years old,” says Ghulam Nabi Antoo of Pulwama in south Kashmir, “and I haven’t seen anything like this my entire life. I lost my house… This is divine fury.” Others blame human folly, manmade conflicts with nature and growing encroachments across the region.
South and central Kashmir, where many houses remain submerged even after the rains have let up, are the worst-affected areas. In the south, districts like Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and parts of Anantnag, where several villages were completely washed away, face the same challenges as Srinagar and Budgam in central Kashmir. With many parts of the capital city Srinagar, and Bemina and Budgam, still under water, authorities expect to find as many as one lakh people stranded in flooded homes. Several tourists and migrant workers are also among those affected.
Back at the school in Dahrun village, even as someone consoles Afroza and offers her a glass of water, her neighbour Haseena feels faint, and it’s Afroza who gets busy sprinkling water on her face. Haseena, who was preparing for her daughter’s wedding when the waters rose, could save nothing but her daughter’s GOLD ornaments. Once revived, she is inconsolable. Dissolving into sobs, she says, “What will I tell my daughters-in-law? What will happen to my daughter’s wedding? Where will we stay after this?” The latter is a growing concern among families at the shelter, as they fear eviction when the school reopens. The families say they will resist any such move by the authorities until all of them are provided with an alternative.
At the moment, however, the loss of property and dreams are not the only concerns of the flood-hit Kashmiris. “We are worried about the well-being of our relatives, who we haven’t been able to contact due to the breakdown in communication,” says Zafar Ahmed, in downtown Srinagar. After seven days of unrelenting rain, the State’s telecommunication system collapsed and remains largely disrupted even now.
“In the age of technological advancement, this breakdown is a failure of the State government, which hasn’t been able to restore it days after the rain relented,” says Qazigund’s Arshid Ahmed, whose brother was in Srinagar to file a job application and is currently untraceable. Some have told him that he might have been in the Rajbagh area, the worst-affected neighbourhood in the city, but he has no way to confirm this.
While Ahmed continues to live in hope, Bragam Doru’s Mohammad Abass Malik is a victim of false hope. Led to believe that his 25-year-old son Rayees was seen walking on the highway, Malik, who had been unable to reach his son on the phone, was shell-shocked when the police arrived with his coffin the next day. Rayees, who was working with a private construction company and living in a rented ACCOMMODATION IN Lasjan, on the outskirts of Srinagar, was apparently washed away while trying to save his certificates. His body floated up three days later.
Not surprisingly, the State government is at the receiving end of rising public ire. Apparently, ministers were spotted in Delhi instead of their flood-hit constituencies. “Where is Omar Abdullah’s government? What has he done for the people? There’s not a single person from the administration on the ground,” alleges Syed Arshid, who travelled to Srinagar from Doru in south Kashmir — mostly on foot, wading through water — in search of his relatives.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah concedes that the government’s initial reaction was slow and scattered: “We too were hit by the floods. For the first 36 hours, we had no government — there was no contact between my ministers and me.”
Despite the reports of stone pelting, locals have been praising the efforts of the defence personnel, who pressed 84 choppers and 300 army units into service, while NDRF brought in 16 units, to rescue people in Srinagar and Bemina. As the floodwater recedes, relief operation by the army and locals is gathering momentum in many parts of south and central Kashmir. People have been collecting daily utility items, including packed food and drinking water, while authorities have started distributing tents and temporary settlement shelters to families whose homes have been completely washed away. In places where construction of shelters is proving difficult due to large-scale damage, public land is being marked out elsewhere. Many who were stranded in houses that were partly underwater — and are, therefore, vulnerable — are also being asked to MOVE OUT. The State government has also announced the first instalment of the compensation, a sum of ₹80,000, to each family.
But even as the people prepare to rebuild their lives, the State machinery is left grappling with the prospect of epidemics. As many as 350 dead cattle from a government-run milk FARM on the Srinagar bypass are now floating in the Jhelum. Carcasses are surfacing elsewhere too. People who’ve lost their homes, their kin, are far too distraught to worry about the outbreak of diseases, making awareness and medical help even more critical.
With a single kameez on her back, now torn and soiled, at the shelter in Darhun village, Haseena only hopes that help from the local authorities and the rest of the country will arrive before disease does.
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist currently on assignment in Srinagar)
(the story was first published http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/blink/know/coming-up-for-air/article6425976.ece)