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Will army's flood relief operations win over Kashmiri hearts?

By Lancelot Fernandes
Last updated on: September 10, 2014 14:54 IST
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The floods that engulfed the state of Jammu and Kashmir have been unprecedented in its history. In fact, the deluge of rains suffered by the state was at par --- and in some case, far worse --- than what was witnessed in Uttarakhand in June last year.

As per India Meteorological Department data, between August 27 and September 3, two districts in Jammu and eight districts in Kashmir got more than double the normal rain.

Complete coverage: The Jammu and Kashmir floods

The summer capital of the state, Srinagar was pounded by 373 per cent more rain than normal. Other districts fared worse.

A tourist is airlifted from the roof of a five-story hotel, four of which are submerged in floodwaters, in Srinagar. Photograph: PTI Photo

Ganderbal got nine times more rain, Pulwama about seven times more and Anantnag in South Kashmir got about five times more the normal rain. Compare this to the Uttarakhand tragedy, where 440 per cent excess rainfall in June 2013 caused much devastation, leading to a loss of 2,000 lives. Although final figures are yet to be compiled, the human loss in J&K floods, despite their greater intensity, will be far lower. That is a perspective we must not lose sight of.

Were the floods preventable if the rivers had been desilted over the years? Much has been written about it but reputed experts believe it wouldn't have mattered when the state faced such a torrential bout of rain in a very short period. The convener of Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage Jammu and Kashmir chapter's, Saleem Baig, has been quoted as saying, “The quantity of water received is extremely huge this time, so the current floods could not have been stopped no matter what we did. This would still have happened.”

A tourist cries as she is airlifted into a chopper in flood-hit Srinagar.Photograph: PTI Photo

Better early warning would have helped but that is wisdom in hindsight. As noted academician, Amitabh Mattoo, who was in the thick of it in Srinagar with his parents noted, most Kashmiris took great comfort in the prediction of the local meteorology chief, Sonam Lotus, who has become a popular icon for the accuracy of his forecasts.

It was a Black Swan event, entirely unexpected and thus caught every one unprepared. J&K is a complex state. The three regions of the state, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, are all diverse ethnically, geographically and politically. 

The Vale of Kashmir, with Srinagar at its heart, is an urban nerve-centre and different from high mountainous districts of North Kashmir. The vale has been the hotbed of separatism in the state where Pakistan-backed separatist leaders and propagandists have christened the Indian Army as an "occupation army". Kashmir Valley is a Sunni Muslim dominated area but for the Kargil region where Shia Muslims dominate. 

A woman is airlifted from the roof of a of a five-story hotel in a flooded locality in Srinagar. Photograph: PTI Photo

Beyond Kargil is Ladakh which is a cold desert, sparsely populated by Buddhists. The Jammu region has the districts in the plains, which have a Hindu majority while the mountainous districts have a higher Muslim population. The politics of each region is different, mostly antagonistic to the other region, which is further exacerbated by the geographical separation created by the mountain ranges. When there was a cloud burst in Ladakh in 2010, the Kashmiris continued with their street protests totally unconcerned about the tragedy befalling others residents of the state. As with anywhere else in India, the army and the Indian Air Force were at the forefront of the rescue operations after the recent floods in Jammu and Kashmir. By all accounts, they have done a stellar job. This would not have created a controversy elsewhere but because it was Kashmir, it provoked an ugly fight even in such tragic times.

Army soldiers reconstruct a damaged bridge over the Tawi River in Jammu.Photograph: PTI Photo

Most of this ugliness was witnessed on the social media. Many 'nationalist' and 'Right Wing' commentators spoke of the ungratefulness of the Kashmiris towards the army which was helping them and the extreme commentators went to wish greater misfortune on the Kashmiris. The army is doing its duty towards fellow Indians and doesn't need anyone's gratitude. But the separatist Kashmiri keyboard warriors were no different.

They took great pleasure in posting the image of destroyed Indian army vehicles and camps and celebrated the death of two soldiers washed away in rescue operations. If this is what has occurred on the fringe, the mainstream has also shown signs which are both alarming and discouraging. Kashmiris will now recognise the efforts of the soldiers and overcome their persistent bitterness towards the army.

Their hopes are likely to be belied if we scrutinise the reaction of the mainstream Kashmiris across India. Many of them have been at the forefront of organising rescue and relief efforts from other parts of India, using social media. Their efforts are volunteer-driven but seem to be deliberately ignoring the state government and the armed forces. The emphasis on volunteer and civil society is somehow aligned to deny the agency of the armed forces and the state government.

Army soldiers reconstruct a damaged bridge over the Tawi River in Jammu.Photograph: PTI Photo

All international best-practices in disaster management show that rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations are best done under the centralised aegis of the agencies of the state. The agencies of the state have the bigger picture (however poorly formed), create grids for deployment of rescue and relief teams, and know (at least better than others) the items required in priority in different areas and can use the resources effectively and efficiently. The piecemeal efforts of volunteers do not amount to a fraction of the resources that are brought upon by the instruments of the state, including the armed forces.

That is why all the top international disaster management agencies work in close coordination and direction of the state. I have been part of the rescue and relief operations after the Gujarat earthquake and in various other floods, where the primacy of the state is reinforced. It is disappointing to see that dictum being inversed in Kashmir now, particularly when it comes to middle-class and upper middle-class areas of Srinagar city. 

People, who were evacuated from flood-affected areas of Srinagar city, walk past an Indian Air Force AN-32 aircraft at an airport in Jammu. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

Social media also tends to play up those affluent enough to have relatives or friends present on Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp to highlight the misery of those in Srinagar. If Srinagar received around four times the usual rain, Ganderbal has received nine times more. How many stories from Ganderbal or Rajauri or Poonch have we seen on the social media?

It might sound harsh to many ears but this discourse is closely tracing the contours of Kashmiri separatism which is unduly dominated by certain areas of Valley, to the total absence of other districts of the Kashmir region and the rest of the state. Let us turn the clock back by a few years to understand it better.

Kashmir Valley faced serious floods in 1992. Those years were the peak of militancy in the Valley. Although mainstream media was scarcely present and there was no social media then, the army and the air force did a commendable job even then.

Indian Army soldiers build a temporary bridge across the river Tawi, near the existing bridge which was swept away by floodwaters from the river Tawi, on the outskirts of Jammu. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

Their effort was covered even then by the New York Times. Many bridges were washed away during those floods and the few remaining wooden ones were burnt down by the terrorists. Major apple growing areas, particularly in South Kashmir, were suffering due to this breakdown in road communication links. Over the next three years, the army reconstructed most of those bridges, using either its own equipment or military bridging equipment procured by the state PWD from GRSE, Calcutta.

If memory serves me right, more than 150 bridges were so constructed in the Kashmir region by the army till 1996. Did those bridges bring the Kashmiris closer to the army or the state government? Hardly. Will it be any different this time? Unlikely. Because you can't shake hands with someone with a closed fist.

Lancelot Fernandes is an independent disaster management consultant who was with the Government of India. The views expressed in the above article are personal.

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