The Election Commission of India’s announcement of poll to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, even as the Chief Minister was pleading for postponement in view of September’s natural calamity, and the Supreme Court’s startling decision to intervene in the poll process by seeking relaxation of the Model Code of Conduct to facilitate relief distribution, has given a new twist to the situation in the State. Though the Prime Minister called the floods a ‘national disaster’ during his visit to the valley, the Centre has refrained from officially declaring the catastrophe as such, possibly because of simultaneous floods in Assam, which complained of being ignored.
With the media focussed on Kashmir Valley and distant Assam, scant attention was paid to Jammu province where eight districts were badly ravaged by the flooding of the Tawi and Chenab rivers and countless nullahs. Now, the Supreme Court has trained the spotlight squarely on the flood victims and their need for prompt and equal relief, to be followed by effective compensation and rehabilitation measures.
The crux of the matter centres round the agency that will distribute the relief. The Prime Minister sanctioned Rs1,000 crore relief after aerially surveying the disaster on 6th September and Rs 745 crore when he visited the valley on Diwali, 23rd October. But amidst grief over the utter failure of the administration to handle rescue operations and the anger of victims over no relief or inadequate relief, questions are being asked if the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund should be the nodal agency for distributing relief, or the State Disaster Response Fund, whose work can be monitored and audited?
Given the ignominious invisibility of the administration at the height of the crisis, leaving an embarrassed Chief Minister to cope with the help of the Indian Armed Forces and civilian volunteers who poured into the State with heart-warming alacrity; given the fact that relief distribution has been uneven and no official survey has been conducted to assess the magnitude of the devastation, Omar Abdullah’s demand for a Rs44,000-crore relief package has raised hackles in some quarters.
In Jammu province, many question Abdullah’s tweet that Srinagar city was “the worst hit”. Pointing out that as per available information, about 70 persons died in Kashmir valley as against 225 in Jammu province, they expressed dismay at being overlooked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though they appreciated the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Siachen Glacier. They fear that unless relief is entrusted to a neutral, publicly accountable agency, it may be used for political constituencies in the run-up to the poll.
The unprecedented rains and floods between 2nd and 9th September occurred even as Jammu border villages faced fierce shelling from across the International Border. It is a mystery why the glaciers melted in Kashmir, but rampant constructions over outlet channels built by the erstwhile Maharaja caused the waters to rise 20 feet to 30 feet, causing a catastrophe reminiscent of that in Mumbai in 2005. In Jammu, 12 modern bridges, including the new Tawi bridge, were swept away; Maharaja Hari Singh’s old bridge survived.
The rains destroyed the crop in Udhampur district, forced schools to shut down and swept nearly 70 bridges away. On 6th September, a mudslide buried Pancheri Sadal village, taking at least 70 lives as district authorities failed to respond to pleas for a helicopter rescue. There has been massive loss of property, including crops and cattle, in Ramnagar, Reasi, Bhadarwah, Ramban, Kishtwar, RS Pura, Poonch, Rampur-Pathankot, Samba (five BSFchowkis were swept away).
In Naushera (Rajouri), a wedding party was swept away on September 4; 52 bodies were recovered but 14 are still trapped in the mud and despite an assurance in the Supreme Court, the authorities failed to provide a JCB machine to extract the bodies. Only Arnia and Bishnab towns could be evacuated in time and about 15,000 people saved.
In response to a petition filed by the Panthers Party, the Supreme Court intervened on 12th September and ordered the setting up of a five-member committee to examine the relief measures. It comprised Kashmir Bar Association president, Jammu Bar Association president, a representative of the Government of India, a representative of the state government, and the senior-most registrar of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court as
Inexplicably, the committee’s interim report (24th September) was not signed by the Jammu and Kashmir Government representative; the final report, due on 31st October, was not submitted till the time of writing. In its interim report, the committee noted that free ration has not been distributed properly in some districts, most notably Srinagar, Pulwama, Rajouri and Udhampur. In several places victims complained of receiving rations from NGOs only. With winter having arrived in Kashmir and fast approaching in Jammu, there is urgent need for blankets and warm clothing for the victims.
Survivors living in tents and makeshift shelters need speedy rehabilitation. The poor need access to free medicines and accessories. All victims need psychiatric help and counselling to cope with post traumatic stress disorder as many were stranded without food and aid for several days before they could be rescued.
The Supreme Court appointed committee recommended speedy assessment of the damage to properties, particularly farm lands, standing paddy, vegetable and fruit crops, and cattle, and distribution of ex-gratia relief in all affected districts. It said municipal authorities must launch a massive cleanliness and sanitization drive to make the affected regions habitable and prevent the outbreak of diseases, with due priority to immunisation. It urged a ban on construction on the beds of flood prone nullahs, rivers or adjacent areas, including the laying of telecommunication cables on hilly roads as this promoted erosion and was against the law.
Even as the Apex Court awaits the committee’s final report, analysts wonder if it was appropriate of the court to intervene with the Election Commission once the poll was announced. But, having waded into this murky water, the court should ensure that relief is entrusted to a non-political agency and distributed equitably.
Amidst this human tragedy, the ISI-backed Million March at London’s Trafalgar Square on 26th October-aimed at making the UN take up the Kashmir dispute – flopped miserably. Muslim youth from the occupied territories of undivided Kashmir pelted ‘star speaker’ Bilawal Bhutto with eggs, forcing him to flee under police cover! Even by the standards of a cameo political debut, it was an anti-climax.