One of the beautiful
things about the devastating September 2014 Kashmir flood was, ironically, that
it disillusioned many people.
Mother said a great flood was imminent but I refused to believe her. I had no reason other than six days of non-stop rain to believe or not. But in all the panic, when people were desperately shifting belongings to upper storeys or running for their lives, I only tried to assert my reluctance, only tried to refuse to accept that in a matter of hours, the greatest flood in the history of Kashmir was going to sweep through our house at Natipora. Just a few days before, Mother had responded seriously to her brother’s disbelief. He had joked about scooters ridden on the floodwater.
My semi-educated yet multitalented mother had already made preparations. She had detached the motor that pumps drinking water to the storage tank on the second floor and had us shift the rice stocks to the second storey. She had my father take all the doors off their hinges. But until I noticed the grille casement on the bottom of our iron-gate filtering the flotsam of garbage and dirty polythene bags in the murky floodwater rushing into our lawn, and later, even when my parents were knee-deep in the waterlogged ground floor, throwing household belongings to me on the stairs, I couldn’t accept what was happening.
As news of the flood
spread, people ran for their lives. Those who could shifted household goods to
safer places. But as communications snapped, people lost contact. A pall of
uncertainty fell over the valley as the water swept through the state, district
by district, the level rising.
There were heaps of household paraphernalia scattered over the first floor. Clothes with their steel hangers, cushions, bolsters, bedding, utensils, crockery, books and other things, one tossed over the other.
Mother made a makeshift kitchen in one of the empty corners on the first floor. She organised things in that randomness and chaos. As evening closed in she fixed the wick of a disused kerosene lantern, filled its small tank with oil and lit it. In three hours, from the time it began to slop the floor downstairs, the water had inundated the ground floor. I sat helplessly as the washbasin in the foyer went under along with the footlights in the walls and the switchboxes. Some forgotten knick knack began to float inside the house: plastic chairs, a white plastic ladle, my three-year-old son’s little plastic panda which had come free with a handful of chocolate Gems, deceptively packed into an expensive brittle plastic ball.
Early that day, we had sent my wife and son seven kilometres away to my mother’s original home at Raj Bagh for safety. Though the place was surrounded by the Jhelum, one of Kashmir’s greatest rivers, nobody thought Raj Bagh would become the Mariana Trench of the September 2014 Kashmir deluge. I was in touch with my wife by telephone and she would periodically ask me about the rising water at Natipora. Even in that precarious situation there was a little contentment.
When we talked late that night, my wife’s voice suggested she felt safe. I was happy with my decision to send them to Raj Bagh. At midnight internal cellphone connectivity in Natipora snapped but Raj Bagh was still connected.
Sleepless, we lowered the wick of the lantern and lay down near the temporary kitchen. Every now and then, one of us would go over to note the water, which was still rising. Just before dawn, as a light sleep had overtaken us, the phone rang.
It was my wife, crying, voice fraught with panic. She spoke, screamed, in short sentences, as if she was reading a telegram: The-river-has-breached-the-banks!-(Gasp)-A-tsunami-of-water-ran-over-the-houses!-(Gasp)-Houses-are-collapsing!-(Gasp)-Compound-walls-are-collapsing!-(Gasp)-Trees-are-falling!-We-will-soon-drown!-What-will-happen-to-our-son?-What-will-I-do?-Save-us!-Please-save-him-at-least! (Gasp).
There was absolute
calm outside, disturbed only by army choppers low in the sky. Sometimes they
would fly too close and the blades would whip up a breeze strong enough to bend
the trees and rattle the roofs. Badami Bagh cantonment, the largest army core
in Kashmir, was submerged. The choppers were taking essentials and
non-Kashmiris trapped in the area to the technical airport somewhere on a
plateau in central Kashmir.
Survivors from Indra Nagar, which falls in the army area of Srinagar, said they would only rescue non-local government staff and some Kashmiri Pandit families. Roushan Illahi, one of the survivors from Indra Nagar, said the army had lists of the people to be rescued. They were traced and either airlifted or ferried out of their hideouts.
For the first few days, official wireless exchanges caught on FM 81.4 were the only source of news. In the beginning it was hard to get the code but with time—we had nothing else to do—we learnt to decipher each transmission.
The bulk of the conversation was among four main stations: Hotel 51 (police control room in Srinagar), Bravo 85 (technical airport), Uniform 50 (chief minister’s residence), and Victor 49 (temporary secretariat near the chief minister’s residence at Hari Niwas). These transmissions were only about rescuing relatives and friends of top ministers and state bureaucrats. Not once did anyone mention anything about saving a civilian anywhere in the valley.
One transmission from Uniform 50 to Hotel 51 asked where ex-chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayed, patron of the People’s Democratic Party, archrival of the ruling National Conference, could be found. Victor 49 called Hotel 51 to rescue the family of senior state Congress leader Saif-ud-Din Soz. When a caller mentioned the location as Friends’ Colony, Hotel 51 couldn’t roger that. The caller had to spell the entire word: Foxtrot, Romeo, India, Eco, November, Delta, Sierra. F-R-I-E-N-D-S.
Another transmission from Victor 49 requested Bravo 85 to ensure the safety of the family of the chief secretary to the chief minister. The family was transported from Hari Niwas camp to the technical airport and from there to Jammu.
There were countless other transmissions, seeking the whereabouts of an assistant commissioner of revenue in Raj Bagh, or looking for Shahnaz Ganai, MLA; a Delta Yankee Sierra Papa (deputy superintendent of police), a Sierra India (sub-inspector) called Ishfaq Ahmad, and many others. Of the situation on the ground there was no mention.
The third day had transmissions suggesting their failure in disaster management had invited the public’s wrath. Police and government officials were attacked by people and the situation was getting out of control. One transmission said a mob had beaten up three constables at Abdulla Bridge in Raj Bagh and made them run for their lives. But the constables hadn’t made it back to their post at Kothi Bagh police station. Other transmissions clearly indicated that relief material coming from outside was deliberately being stopped at the airport.
Nobody in the valley
had a clue about anybody else as communication was gone. The longest three days
of my life passed in prayer and restlessness. The water at Natipora kept
rising, until it was just two feet from the first floor. It became mandatory
now to shift to the second floor. But no one was fit for the task. My father
said he couldn’t feel his knees. My mother was desperate and confused. And I
was wretchedly observing everything.
We had food in store—rice, pulses, onions, potatoes and biscuits; enough to last the deluge. But there wasn’t enough drinking water. The storage tank on the second floor was only half full. It would last three days if used frugally. But an old, forgotten leak in one of the flush tanks meant we lost half of the remaining half over the night.
It was in the great flood that I realised the actual value of water. I discovered that a single bucket was enough for a complete bath and a mug for a proper face wash. For the first time I didn’t shower nine days in a row. As my clothes were all over the place, I wore the same vest for nine days. I was truly grateful that I wasn’t a castaway clinging to a treetop somewhere in the midst of the deluge, or a family sleeping on the roof of their inundated house.
I drank three sips of boiled-cooled drinking water at lunch and dinner. Once we’d finished dinner, Mother would collect the leftover water from our glasses and pour it back into the bucket.
In the list of 182 deadliest floods worldwide ever on Wikipedia, the 2014 Kashmir flood figures at 125. China tops the list with its 1931 flood, which claimed three million lives. China has the distinction of the five deadliest floods on the planet, followed by the Netherlands. China figures 23 times, the Netherlands 18 times, and the United States 11 times in the list.
From 879 AD, when landslides in the Khadanyar mountains below Baramulla blocked the Jhelum, the valley has had a dozen devastating floods. None of them figure in the Wiki list. But this one, because of the loss of life and property, is the great one in Kashmir’s history.
People blame the flood on various causes. They believe the scale of disaster could have been less even if the flood was inevitable. One of the major assertions is that the state government never took disaster management seriously. The flood channels of the Jhelum were hardly ever dredged. In its defence, the government complained that people had encroached on thousands of acres and built houses in the flood plain (construction was allowed all these years for rasook, liaison, and with bribery).
Paradoxically, almost all top security departments, ministerial mansions, homes of top bureaucrats and influential businessmen, and the chief minister’s residence are located on Gupkar Road up to Harwan, a green belt area where construction is illegal. Important departments like the Board of School Education, the Lower Court Complex, the Hajj House, a government hospital, the Police Public School, the State Motor Garages, Government Polytechnic College for Women—all of which submerged recently—were constructed in Bemina, an officially designated flood-prone area in Srinagar. Even the Srinagar Development Authority, which plans and approves construction in the city, is located in the bowl of Bemina.
The government also blames unprecedented and untraced cloudbursts for the September flood. For many years now, people in the valley have argued that the Amarnath Yatra is placing increasing ecological burdens on the valley. They believe it’s no longer just a pilgrimage, but that Hindu extremists are using it as a political tool.
Thirty years ago, the programme was an undertaking of the tehsildar and took a fortnight to complete. The number of pilgrims was small. In 2014 the registered pilgrims numbered 3.72 lakh. From 15 days the Yatra has been extended to two months—from June 28 this year to the first week of August.
The state government
isn’t prepared for even a minor emergency, let alone an event of this
magnitude. In fact, disaster management has been taken very lightly, its
importance ignored. The departments listed on the website of the secretariat do
not include disaster management.
The website of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) mentions the state’s hazard profile as: “Earthquakes, Avalanches and Landslides”. But there is no mention of flood or the other seven kinds of disaster featured in the website of the J&K ENVIS Centre: Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing.
Table 1 of the ENVIS website charts the list of 11 types of disaster in J&K as: “The typical natural and anthropogenic disasters in the State of J&K”. “Incessant rainfall” and “flash floods” top the list in the chart of “Natural Disasters”.
Digging into the ENVIS website uncovers a 21-page PDF which, in its list of references on the last page, links to another 26-page PDF with some useful information. After studying the seven-chapter policy document, “J&K State Disaster Management Policy”—with its maps and tables—drafted by the Department of Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation in 2011, one wonders that what prompted the government to write it, and that too in 2011.
The last disaster in the state was the August 2010 cloudburst that hit Leh, which receives the most foreign tourists in the state. The cloudburst had washed away a cluster of villages down from the mountain they were situated on.
No disaster management plan had been drafted ever before, even after the October 2005 earthquake which devastated western Kashmir division. An estimated 1,400 people died and 7,000 were injured. It rendered 90 per cent of Uri’s population homeless. Earlier that year, in February, a blizzard in Waltengu, in the south-eastern part of the valley, had killed 175 persons. But it was not until the Leh disaster that a policy was framed.
Each chapter in the document has been broken into modules giving a detailed account of the comprehensive plan to fight disasters.
Module 4 (“State Level Institutional Mechanism for Disaster Management”) reveals that Jammu and Kashmir was the first state to frame laws for natural calamities. The module admits that the JKNCDAI Act 1955 has failed:
“The State of Jammu and Kashmir was amongst the first few states of the Union to enact legislation for natural calamities. The Jammu & Kashmir Natural Calamities Destroyed Areas Improvement (JKNCDAI) Act 1955 was enacted for improvement of towns, villages and other areas destroyed by natural calamities in the State. However, not much mileage was achieved through the availability of the Act.”
And intriguingly, it further says:
“As per the provisions of Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir has already notified and constituted the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), the State Executive Committee (SEC) and the District Disaster Management Authorities. However, considering the special character of the State, there shall be Divisional Disaster Management Authorities, as well.
“The State Disaster Management Authority has been constituted under the chairpersonship of Hon’ble Chief Minister. Similarly, the State Executive Committee under the Chief Secretary has also been constituted. The State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) has been formulated and has two Companies (Coys) are being prepared for field duties and deployment. Existing facilities of the Fire & Emergency Services (F&ES) and SDRF shall be strengthened by provision of capacity-building in terms of equipment and training. The District Disaster Management Authorities under the respective Deputy Commissioners too have been formulated.
“All these bodies shall be made functional by taking appropriate measures like appointment of personnel, establishing offices, provision of budgetary resources, etc., within one year.”
Nobody in Kashmir, to this day, knows about SDRF or the Coys or any such disaster management authority. No capacity-building, no such offices, as mentioned in the module, have ever been known to exist or its volunteers witnessed anywhere in the September flood. In his September 14 interview to the local government radio, which had its makeshift broadcast studio atop a hill in Srinagar, Nazir Gurezi, one of the state ministers, admitted “the government was absent for the first three days of the flood”. After the interview an angry SMS by a local flood-victim went on air: “Relief may be distributed to affected army personnel. We [people] don’t need it.”
In another radio announcement, just before the flood, the government said it had only 250 boats in reserve to rescue the people (a population of about two million souls stranded in high water).
Each day the state ministry and bureaucracy convene dozens of meetings but there is hardly any praxis to witness. There is one more 48-page long PDF draft created by the Institute of Management and Public Administration of Jammu and Kashmir which too outlines the disaster management policy in great detail. The Policy Mission on the cover page says:
“Every place–A safe place
Every house–A secure home
Every individual–wearing a smile
The journey continues to the last mile.”
But everything is on paper.
The great thing to witness in the floods was people helping themselves and each other. Young boys got together and built boats out of plastic tanks, tyre tubes, mattresses, wooden doors and planks and saved thousands of lives. They rowed to inundated areas to distribute bottles and cans filled with drinking water, bags of rice and pulses, packets of biscuits, medicines and other essential things.
Stories abound in newspapers of young men saving animals, rescuing pregnant women from maternity hospitals, saving newborns from G. B. Pant hospital, a submerged children’s hospital in Sonwar, Srinagar, and later even setting up rehabilitation camps and relief units, cleaning and sanitising city hospitals and roads, controlling traffic—everything that a government does. Local newspapers are still filled with pictures of the heroism of young Kashmir.
On September 8, a
Civil Defence boat arrived in our neighbourhood. A crew of boys rowed into the
interior of Natipora to rescue the worst affected. I called a crew and asked
what his colleagues, who volunteered at Raj Bagh, said of that area. “Only
rooftops are visible, many houses have collapsed and corpses are floating on
The message tore me apart. I was not sure how much was true. But there was no reason to disbelieve even a lie. I prayed under my breath and was at once angry with everything. Why should such a painful uncertainty be inflicted on someone who had no reason to deserve it?
Each moment I grew more restless and confused. I tried to imagine that the house at Raj Bagh was high enough to save my family. I tried to compare the height of the breached riverbank with the house. I tried hard not to imagine my helpless wife running up and down in desperation. In truth, the water was overflowing the bank by four feet; something I couldn’t believe or imagine.
On Day 2 of the deluge, the neighbours opposite our house received a landline call that informed them that their younger son’s Ajaz’s in-laws were feared dead in Raj Bagh. All the women and children started crying. This information numbed me. I thought I would collapse.
On Day 3 Ajaz collected whatever wood he could from his attic. He built a raft and cruised slowly out of Natipora, uncertain of where his voyage was going to take him as there was high water everywhere.
In the evening we noticed ripples on the water; my heart pounded with excitement and fear. Ajaz was back with some news. “There is good news for you!” he shouted in my direction. “Your wife and your son are safe!” I jumped with joy.
Ajaz had found my uncle, my mother’s only brother, who had made fun of the flood, in whose house my family was trapped. My uncle had informed him my family was safe. My wife and son had been rescued on the evening of September 7. She later told me how on that day she begged the few rescue boats to save them but nobody would come by. On half a dozen occasions, army helicopters hovered over the neighbourhood where she, my son and countless other families were begging for rescue. “None of the helicopters came to anyone’s rescue,” she said.
“Ultimately, a large motor boat with a group of civil volunteers who belonged to some adventure tourism business came by and took the women and children out.”
My wife and son were taken to a place where, with another group of volunteers, they waded through chest-deep water in human chains, heading towards Abdulla bridge, the only dry place in Raj Bagh. Across the bridge the water was low that day. My wife and son boarded a Fortuner which dropped them at a relative’s house at Nishat.
Never before had I valued neighbours, face-to-face communication, food, water, perseverance, hope, kerosene lanterns, bicycles, transistors and other old time things as much as after the flood. An old era had returned to the new. It was odd but in many ways strangely beautiful.
waist-deep water, I ventured out to the main road outside the colony. Mechanics
were fixing flood-ruined motorbikes and scooters. There was mound upon mound of
muddy bedding, flooring, clothes and furniture. Shopkeepers were cleaning their
shops. I took a bicycle and pedalled straight to Raj Bagh.
Raj Bagh is enclosed on three sides by the Jhelum. I walked around, looking at sites where the flood had breached the levees. There were crumpled houses and capsized cars. I saw handwritten lists of names outside hotels giving information on the whereabouts of missing people. Employees of the Government Arts Emporium were drying sodden files, spread all over Abdulla bridge, the ink smudged over the pages. I scanned crowds of confused people—having relief meals at open kitchens, looking for missing relatives, scampering with their muddy baggage, or darting towards their relief camps.
I spoke to survivors whose houses were just opposite the breaches. Muhammad Ashraf showed me videos he shot just as the water gushed into the old residential area of Raj Bagh, and into his house, next to the riverbank, like a tsunami. He looked gaunt, face unwashed, eyes tired from being awake all these nights and sleeping in his car parked on the riverbank in front of his house.
“Around 50 persons took refuge on the ten-by-ten concrete roof of our garage,” said another survivor, Dilshad Ahmad Dar. “There were men, women from our neighbourhood, and some Bihari labourers.”
I met a boy from Natipora who had walked all the way to a makeshift hospital at Chashmashahi, some 20 kilometres away, to visit his sick wife and their newborn baby girl after nine days. All the patients and newborns from Srinagar’s only maternity hospital, which was inundated, had been shifted to various private and makeshift hospitals. His wife was among them.
There was a relief camp at Chashmashahi where the valley’s top business tycoons, including one from construction giant Bilal Builder, were waiting for their meals in a long queue. I met Rashid, a television journalist who had spent three days on the roof of a truck with two strangers.
Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh, a middle-aged man, had passed food to his neighbours in knotted plastic bags by slipping them on a telephone cable. As their houses were only one storey high, Sheikh and his neighbour swam through the water to reach an abandoned three-storey building. All the survivors or flood victims I met at Raj Bagh were angry with the government. Ashraf recalled that he and his neighbours had waved in vain at the low-flying choppers. Not one came to help.
In The Indian Express I read about a man who had been carrying the body of his four-day-old son in a worn-out plastic bag, looking for a dry patch of land to bury it. It had taken him an entire day to figure out a dry graveyard.
On the ninth day of the flood, phone connectivity in the valley returned sporadically. Mother sent me for chlorine tablets. After wandering for three hours I found them at a medical relief camp at Parraypora, Bahgat. On the way I saw that the largest gurudwara in Bahgat was sheltering hundreds of homeless Muslim families, providing healthcare, food, water, clothes and blankets.
Later that afternoon I travelled through the downtown area with two of my students on their motorbike. We had to take numerous diversions, bypassing areas still under water. A seven kilometre ride turned out to be a 40 kilometre trip, first through downtown Srinagar and then the mountains of Harmukh.
On the way I saw youths directing traffic and distributing relief material—water, biscuits, vegetables, pulses, medicines, blankets and tents. I saw Budgam villagers driving tippers loaded with vegetables, cartons of apples and pears, and water-filled tanks into the submerged areas.
Public anger against the government was writ large everywhere. A banner on a relief camp at Rajouri Kadal, in the heart of Srinagar, said: “We Don’t Need Indian Chopers” [sic]. Sometimes the choppers would stop to drop food packets. But all they dropped was expired milk powder and biscuits. The great flood has disillusioned those who thought the army was the primary and largest source of rescue because the army itself is on record that it was the youths who saved thousands trapped in the flooded houses.
“We salute the youth of Kashmir for their bravery. They did a fantastic job. They were at the forefront of rescue and relief operation. I reiterate the contribution of Kashmiri youth in every forum because we saw it with our own eyes,” General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps, Lt Gen Subrata Saha told reporters in Srinagar on October 8.
“We wanted to throw stones at the choppers. It felt as though they were making fun of our troubles!” said Younis Ahmad, volunteer at a medical relief camp at Natipora. “They were doing nothing except creating a noise.”
I saw hundreds of dead cows afloat in knee-deep water at the Bemina-Qamarwari crossway. The Srinagar municipality was nowhere to be seen to dispose of them. Each cow looked like an elephant.
A group of boys from a madarsa anonymously transported sanitary pads to hundreds of girls trapped in another religious school. “We were conscious that there are some needs that women have. But it was difficult to initiate the process of delivering the pads to the girls at Lal Bazaar,” said Wakaas Ahmad Khan, a volunteer with Athrot, a private rescue-relief-and-rehabilitation organisation. “So my elder sister took the first step and set us in motion. We did it in a way that nobody would know who was giving what to whom,” he explained.
Wakaas Ahmad Khan was one of the volunteers who rescued hundreds of women, many with newborn babies, from Srinagar’s largest maternity hospital, Lal Ded, inundated on September 7. After the waters receded, Khan joined the boys in the cleaning and sanitising around the city.
I arrived at the house—where my wife and my son had been for all those nine days of flood—in Nishat at 8 p.m. The first thing I noticed was my son. The feeling of that moment is indescribable. He saw me and at once came running and jumped into my arms. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Then I saw my wife; she looked ill and reflected the shock that she had already absorbed. It was like a dream. I couldn’t believe my family was really alive.
Day by day, more and
more relief-laden vehicles drove into to the neighbourhoods. A megaphone
announcement from our mosque where, coincidentally, an extended Sikh family had
taken refuge, said, “The Sikh community of Arigaam, Tral, has come to
distribute sealed relief packets in our neighbourhood”. I rushed to queue up
before a long Tata cargo carriage. The packet I received contained almost
everything one would need: a rice bag, pulses, biscuits, soap, a bottle of
edible oil, chapatis, spices, packets of sugar and salt, candles, matchbox.
Slowly, everything is limping back to life. But the trauma is severe. Besides claiming around 250 lives, the deluge destroyed infrastructure and devastated business and agriculture. Some 90,000 buildings have been severely damaged and around 1 lakh have suffered some damage. The estimated loss to agriculture is around $5 billion and $1.5 billion to the horticulture sector.
Around 50,000 head of livestock is lost and 5,000 miles of road and 300 concrete bridges, which took decades to come up, are gone. Damage to the business sector, to the main local markets of Kashmir, has been estimated in trillions of dollars. Though there is a promise of relief and help from various sides on paper, hardly anything concrete has been done. Aware of how the state has always taken them for granted or exploited the helplessness of being underreported, people have risen to help themselves and each other.
Many people are gathering the loose bricks of their fallen walls. Many are cleaning their shops or dismantling damaged houses to build anew. Many are waiting for their insurance payments, others for relief. Many large families live in small tin sheds. Then there are so many who have absolutely nowhere to go. But all are living with some hope, believing good times will return.
It took nine days for the water to recede entirely from our area. There was mud everywhere. The ornamental plants and flowers had begun to decay. The maize plants in the kitchen garden stood limp. The collard greens had wilted.
I helped my parents clean the house. We jettisoned the ruined furnishing, books, papers, utensils and so many other things. We got a sanitiser and washed all the walls with gallons of phenyl. We sprayed disinfectant in the surroundings. A few days later my wife and my son returned to Natipora, the family was united again. And, according to custom, my parents had a healthy lamb sacrificed in propitiation for my wife’s and my son’s lives.
As I end writing this, Fayaz Ahmad Wani, a 40-year-old government employee from Natipora, is knee-deep in his muddy kitchen garden, tossing collard greens seeds over the land in the hope that, as the earth recovers, his family will have a fresh crop of greens ready for the coming winter.