Article 2014 The Year in Review

Life after the Kashmiri floods: a survivor's tale

Picture: Faisal Khan.

When torrential rain fell on Indian-occupied Kashmir, on 3 September 2014, people in the capital city of Srinagar by and large saw it as relief from the insipid heat of the last few weeks. Five days later, two-thirds of Srinagar was flooded as the Jhelum river, which criss-crosses the city, breached its banks at four of the seven main historical bridges. The massive flood was the worst to hit Kashmir valley in the last 100 years. The Jhelum had swelled to more than 100,000 (one lakh) cusecs of water, three times higher than its normal capacity. While the raging waters had flooded most of Srinagar, the Jawahar Nagar neighbourhood was the worst affected.

The Jhelum slices the city into two parts at Pantha Chowk, 10km away from the city centre, Lal Chowk. At Ram Munshi Bagh, where the Jhelum’s water level is checked, it was recorded at 24 feet, six feet above the danger level. To prevent the city from inundation, this extra water flows into a parallel flood channel whose capacity is 16,000 cusecs, but because of silting and encroachment it could take only 6,000 cusecs. This extra water breached the dykes of both the river and the flood channel and flooded Srinagar.

Jawahar Nagar, which was built 60 years ago, lies between the Jhelum and the flood channel. The overflow water which inundated the neighbourhood approached it from both sides.

The day before the floods, Ghulam Rasool Tota, a resident of the Rhustam colony in Jawahar Nagar, had finished the marriage ceremony of his third daughter. On the morning of 7 September, Tota and his relatives, who were invited to the marriage celebrations, were asleep in his old one-storey house. Around 8 am, Tota went to kiss his elder daughter’s three-year-old son. When he cuddled the boy, Tota’s hands became wet.

“I thought he had urinated”, says Tota.

After returning him to the bed, Tota entered his courtyard. What he saw there was unthinkable. “The water was flowing like fire and entering my house”, he told me. “It was beyond the limits of my imagination to say from where the water was coming.”

Minutes after Tota alerted everyone that water was entering the house that had enjoyed wedding celebrations only a few hours before, all the family went helter skelter. They began looking for things but by now the house was under four feet of water.

With only the chance to save their lives left, all the family members scattered in different directions. Nobody knew where to go or what to do. A few metres away, after wading through the water, a passage led them to a four-storey house. Some entered and others went another way. Two hours later, three storeys of the house were underwater.

“We could not imagine that the water would flow with this speed and reach that level”, says Rameez, Tota’s only son among five daughters.

Rameez, along with his other two sisters, eight relatives and 20 other family members were stuck in the attic of the house for five days. Some of them were non-locals from the Indian state of Bihar. Rameez knew nothing of his parent’s whereabouts for the next 15 days, nor of his newly wed sister and her in-laws.

*“As the level of water was rising till it reached the third storey of the house, we started reciting verses from the Qur’an as we considered it the last day of our life”, recollects Rameez. *

For the next five days, they all waited helplessly for the government to rescue them. They had no food and no water. Their was no sign of the state. The problem was compounded by the collapse of entire communication system, included cellphones and internet. The valley remained cut off from the rest of the world. The breakdown of cellphone services in particular spread fear as thousands of families were unable to reach their relatives and friends who were caught in the flood.

Rameez’s situation was the same. He could neither go out to find his parents, nor call any relative or friend to save them. His immediate need was to leave for a safer place.

On the second day in the house, an Indian army helicopter hovered overhead. A ray of hope broke the eerie silence among the members. “We thought”, says Rameez, “that the army would rescue us.”

While Rameez kept hoping that the Indian army would rescue them, his expectation was broken when no help came from the army helicopters above. To get the helicopters’ attention, Rameez played three tricks, all in vain. First he whistled endlessly, then he burned wood to generate smoke and give the impression of emergency. Lastly he wrapped a blanket marked with a red sign around the non-locals, to symbolise a medical emergency, because Rameez thought that it would lure the army into thinking that Indian labourers were in need of medical help.

“But”, says Rameez, “all of it proved futile because army was selectively picking people who were either high- ranking officials or their relatives.”

While it was the state administration’s prerogative to rescue flood-bound people, the chief minister was left helpless as his bureaucrats and lawmakers fled from the flood-hit valley. He was left with only a dozen officials to handle the catastrophe and had only 250 boats at his disposal and just a few policemen. Hundreds of police stations, including the district headquarters, were flooded.

The desperate chief minister Omer Abdullah sought help from New Delhi, but the help that came was insufficient, leaving the whole population to fend for themselves. As they waited to be rescued, people from the unaffected areas of the Kashmir valley began quickly to act, starting rescue and relief operations.These young men from downtown Srinagar and other unaffected areas single-handedly rescued hundreds of thousands of people. One of the rescued families was Rameez’s.

It was the dawn of 11 September 11 when some young boys from the old city reached Rameez’s house and rescued everyone. As they had only a few boats, they took everyone in shifts, which further scattered the family.

After being rescued, Rameez first had to look for his sisters, parents and newly wed sister. It took him 22 days to find his parents and another month to locate his married sister.

On meeting his parents at a relief camp set up in the Sanat Nagar area of Srinagar, Rameez heaved a sigh of relief. “It was devastating to be estranged from my family during this catastrophe. When I saw my mother and father, my fears were alleviated”, says Rameez.

Rameez’s mother recalls that the 22-day period of estrangement from her family was the worst of her life. “Our house coming under the floodwater didn’t affect me as much as the thought of what had become of my family during the time I was away from them.”

The damage caused by the floods is colossal. Preliminary estimates calculate the loss to be $1tn. The floods left 282 people dead and 403 injured. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are now living in tents. Around 300,000 homes are damaged. Manufacturers and traders were the worst hit. The state government appeared to struggle with the floods; it failed to take act on the warning given by the weather department and then failed in rescue and relief operations.

The immediate actions to be taken during a calamity are rescue, relief and then rehabilitation. On all fronts the state could not do anything. According to one study, 96% of rescue and relief was carried out by the locals only. Volunteers continue to deliver relief in the tent cities. The state announced interim relief of 75,000 Indian Rupees for damaged houses, which is not enough by any standard. Now people wait helplessly for Messiah to come.

In Rameez’s case, his house is completely damaged but the government has offered no interim relief. The reason, says Rameez, is that the government says that our house has not collapsed, so it does not come under that category. Engineers have told him that the house is unsafe.

During my visits to the Rhustam colony, most of the houses there were undergoing reconstruction. But Rameez’s damaged house stood alone and in ruins. No reconstruction work has started because the authorities refused to list the house as “flood affected”, citing that the house should have not collapsed.

On entering the house, one becomes fearful of its imminent collapse as the mud walls have caved in.

“Look at these walls. In what sense is this house inhabitable?” asks Rameez

The only options left for Rameez’s family is to approach a bank for a loan, but Rameez says that it is becoming difficult for him as the banks are asking him to mortgage his property, which was lost in floods.

“Now tell us what we can do”, says Rameez. “Our house is in ruins, we lost everything we had including gold items that we could have mortgaged.”

With no place of their own to shelter themselves, Rameez and his six family members are staying in rented accommodation. To pay the rent and daily necessities of life, Ghulam Rasool Tota, a retiree, is forced to spend half his pension to sustain his family.

We don’t know what future holds for us”, says Tota. His house is damaged and uninhabitable. To construct a new house, he will need a large sum of money. “There is no option but to reconstruct our house. But it costs a lot of money which we don’t have. When we are struggling for daily survival, how can we build a house?” he says in a grim tone.

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