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Let Modi help J&K the way he did Kutch

By T V R Shenoy
September 23, 2014 21:29 IST

J&K floods'Narendra Modi as chief minister did a superb job of rehabilitation after the Kutch earthquake of 2001. He can use that hard-earned expertise for the benefit of the people of Kashmir too -- but only if they let him do so,' says T V R Shenoy.

At 8:46 on the morning of January 26, 2001, Kutch was shaken by an earthquake so powerful that houses trembled in Delhi, 900 kilometres away. Twenty thousand people died, hundreds of thousands more were injured.

There are three all-important 'R's in the response to a disaster.

The first 'R' is 'rescue', pulling survivors out of danger.

The second 'R' is 'relief', providing those rescued with food, clothing, and shelter.

The third 'R' is 'rehabilitation', bringing life back as close to normal as possible.

Six months on the Keshubhai Patel regime in Gujarat was failing miserably in relief and rehabilitation. Lethargy -- inexcusable in itself -- was compounded by corruption.

Much is made of Gujaratis' capacity for hard work and their can-do spirit yet those virtues were of no use in the absence of leadership.

At least one of Keshubhai Patel's own ministers was so disgusted that he reached out to the top, which in those days meant Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani. Their choice of Patel's successor was the BJP general secretary (organisation). And so on October 7, 2001 Narendra Modi became the 14th chief minister of Gujarat.

Three years later, in October 2004, the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management awarded a gold medal to the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority for 'innovations in governance' for its post-earthquake work. The reasons are best explained in a case study called 'Gujarat Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Programme', that was released when the Manmohan Singh ministry -- no friend of Narendra Modi's -- ruled India. The full paper can be read here (external link), but a few quotations should suffice:

'By the end of January 2004 911,150 of 928,369 (damaged) houses were repaired.' 'Almost 87 per cent of (destroyed) houses were reconstructed.' '42,678 classrooms of primary schools were completed almost by the end of the first year.' 'All hospitals and health facilities were also made functional within a small period.'

One might argue that rebuilding infrastructure -- however speedily done -- is not exactly an 'innovation.' That is correct; the fresh thinking lay in the handling of people.

Arguably, orphans are the most vulnerable segment in the wake of a disaster. The standard Indian response is to provide them with monetary compensation; more often than not the money ends up in the pocket of a relative.

The Modi ministry in Gujarat decided that the money would be paid into a bank account opened for each child rather than as a lump sum. Further -- this is where the innovation shines through -- these were joint accounts, where the adult partner was the local district collector.

It is easy to rob an orphan of hard cash. It is only slightly less easy to empty out an account opened for a minor child. But even the most rapacious of relatives, living in villages far removed from the state capital, would never tangle with the man on the spot. And the district collectors themselves knew they had to answer to a hard taskmaster in Narendra Modi.

Women are second only to orphans when it comes to vulnerability. So, in addition to providing money for their immediate needs -- preferably through the banking system -- they were enrolled in special programmes that could result in gainful employment.

The usual answer to the problem of rebuilding is to construct rows that look depressingly alike. The Modi government chose to give grants to householders, figuring out that individuals would do a better job of checking waste and corruption when it came to their own homes. At the same time the building codes were revised, and seismic micro-zones were mapped out, to make the new constructions as earthquake-proof as is possible.

Many were surprised when the prime minister spent so much of his Independence Day address on women's issues, when he launched the Jan Dhan Yojana, and when he reached out to children on the fifth of September. But all this, including using banks as an instrument of social engineering, had been foreshadowed in his rehabilitation initiatives in Gujarat a dozen years earlier.

What is the relevance of all this today? Because the floods in Jammu and Kashmir require precisely the same level of attention to detail, the same hard work, and the same innovative approach to rehabilitation.

It will not be easy. There are obvious differences between Kutch and Kashmir, starting with the terrain. (It is much easier to move both goods and people in relatively flat Kutch than in mountainous Kashmir.)

Second, while the Bhuj earthquake was completely a natural disaster the floods in Kashmir are at least in part a man-made calamity. The centuries-old water management system -- water channels to lakes, lakes to rivers -- was destroyed in the name of 'development', cemented over to build hotels and luxury homes. When heavy rains came, the water had nowhere to go but straight into houses.

Just as building codes were stiffened and seismic zones mapped out in Kutch so must there be fresh environmental guidelines before rebuilding starts in Kashmir.

Much of the Kashmir Valley, including the city of Srinagar, lies in Seismic Zone V, the most dangerous on a scale of one to five, exactly as Kutch does.

In addition to unclogging water bodies -- a problem that brought Mumbai to a halt in 2005 -- the new houses must also be made quake-resistant.

But a bigger problem than the environment may be the people themselves. Over the decades the people of the Kashmir Valley have essentially had only two sources of employment, namely the tourist trade and some clerical job in the government. Tourism is essentially finished for several months -- possibly years -- to come.

Will the Kashmiris take a cue from the destitute women of Kutch, and learn fresh trades? That is open to question.

Again, it left a bad impression to hear that army and air force personnel were being attacked by the very people they were seeking to rescue. There have been disasters in India before; has anyone ever heard of anything so stupid as stoning helicopters? You can blame separatists for much of this idiocy, but what of the society that spawned them?

The rest of India might justifiably demand why money should be spent on Kashmir rather than Uttarakhand. (Two hundred people died in the Kashmir floods, and yes that is a tragedy, but do remember that the death toll in Uttarakhand last year was close to ten thousand.) If money is limited, how does one justify prioritising Kashmir over Uttarakhand?

There is a final elephant in the room. Rehabilitating Kashmiris is fine, but will that process also include those Kashmiri Hindus who have been systematically chased out of their ancestral homes since 1990?

Even his most virulent political foes accept, if only in private, that Narendra Modi did a superb job of rehabilitation after the Kutch earthquake of 2001. He can use that hard-earned expertise for the benefit of the people of Kashmir too -- but only if they let him do so.

T V R Shenoy