On the early morning of May 10, 2015 two friends, Faizan Malik and Mohammad Haseeb Bhat, had left home to attend lessons in the old city of summer capital Srinagar in Indian Administered Kashmir (IAK).
After finishing the classes at 8am, the eleventh class students decided to play cricket in the courtyard of Pathar Masjid (mosque), build by Nur Jahan, wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir on the banks of the river Jhelum. The ball, hit by one of them, flew into the river. To take the ball out of it, one friend advanced towards the river, while the other held him tight by his hand to prevent him to slip. Unaware of what was going to happen next, the feet of a friend who had taken front slipped and fell into the river dragging the other friend along. Two minutes later, the surface of river became smooth as if nothing had happened. The river had gulped the duo.
For about two hours, eyewitnesses told me, no attempt was made by the IAK government’s rescue team comprising of river police and State Disaster Relief Management (SDRF) to retrieve the drowned bodies. At 10 am, the rescue team arrived at the drowning site, whose failed search led them to sought help from Marine Commandos of Indian Navy. However the commandos also failed to prove helpful in retrieving the drowned.
A few days after the drowning, as the IAK government had continuously failed to retrieve the bodies, family members of the drowned pair hit the streets to press the authorities to speed up their search. Twelve days later after drowning, Haseeb’s body was retrieved successfully. On the same day, Faizan’s parents in anticipation that their son’s body would also be found in a short while because both the friends had drowned together, prepared a grave for their son. It was an act which rarely a parent does. However, the grave wouldn’t become the resting place for Faizan for following 11 days till his body was found on June 3.
The days of waiting for dead bodies, causes a delay in funerals, keeps a family in desperation, and takes time to resume their normal life. The unexpected death creates a void in the family triggering many mental disorders.
All these days in waiting were like doomsday for me.
“All these days in waiting were like doomsday for me. I used to leave home every morning and to see whether they found my son or not. I may have imagined every worse thing to happen in my life, but not to keep grave of my son waiting for his burial,” said Fayaz Ahmad, father of Faizan.
Well, these are not the isolated cases in which a drowned body remained under the water unretrieved for weeks together in IAK. According to official figures from January 2011 to April 2014, about 51 persons died due to drowning in the 10 districts of IAK. In these cases the rescue operation was started hours after the incident took place, said rescue officials.
What causes this delay in IAK? Official wishing not to be named said, the search operations, which is jointly conducted by the river and SDRF department, do not have the sufficient man force and equipment (that includes different variant of motor boats, extra life jackets, different sizes of hooking rods etc) to meet the requirement of three lakes-among them is Wular, the largest lake in India- the two big rivers, Jhelum and Indus and scores of other small water bodies.
At present, there are just seven motorboats and eight hired Shikaras (Kashmiri traditional boats) available with the rescue team. Due to this paucity, there are no boats available neither, in South Kashmir where from river Jhelum originates later fed by six streams -Brangi, Arapath, Sundram, Vishaw and Lidder -before the river settles in Wular lake and flows to Pakistan Administrated Kashmir nor in Central Kashmir where also a number of water bodies flow. Whenever there is a case of drowning, the rescue team along with the boat has to be dispatched from Srinagar, the headquarters of rescue team to carry out the operations. The team take almost a day to reach a spot.
The three out of seven motor boats have been kept in Nigeen Lake, in Jehlum, and one in Baramulla. The rest of the boats, as per officials, have been kept at Srinagar, to augment the requirement of equipments from areas which has does not have. This system, according to Syed Nisar Ahmad, in charge of the River police Force, cause more delay in fishing out the body because a drowning is first communicated to the local police station who forwarded the message to police control room and they to river police headquarters which then send team to a spot.
For instance, in July 2013, a drowned body was recovered almost a month after it had drowned in south Kashmir. The body was later recovered from Wular Lake in north Kashmir travelling a distance of about 200 sq km. Before the team reached at the spot, the same hierarchy of communication and dispatch of rescue team was followed. The body was recovered only after other departments intervened in the rescue operation.
In the above drowning case of the two friends, the rescue team was stationed about 7 sq km away from the spot. Locals first informed the local police station who forwarded the message to police control room and they to river police headquarters. Two hours later, rescue team reached the spot. Well, by this process, it seems the phone call might have taken few minutes which were true, but then what has caused the delay? Official said the absence of boats within a stretch of seven km caused the delay and out of the Srinagar district there are no boats even after travelling 40 sq km.
Due to this problem we are unable to fish out the body at the earliest.
“Due to this problem we are unable to fish out the body at the earliest. Had the boats with rescue team being placed at these place, the drowned bodies could have been found easily without any delay,” said a senior official in the river police, who wished to remain anonymous.
When asked In charge of the river police, Syed Nisar said that he has taken over the department only two months ago besides he is not an expert to comment on the issue.
“But what I know is whenever we get any information, we do send boats immediately,” said Nisar .
Last year, the then in charge of river police, Dr Vinod Kaul had felt the need of equipments and had written to higher ups asking for more equipment, which the current in charge accepted however he feigned ignorance what has happened to that proposal.
The presence of one boat of the rescue team in North Kashmir is not enough as well? According to river police officials, the rescue boat stationed there is insufficient to cover the entire belt. The boat placed there is a 75 horsepower boat, which cannot be moved easily if, for example, a drowning incident occurs in Handawara or Kupwara district or in Bandipora where Wular is located. In these cases, a boat of 25 horse power with rescue team is transported from Srinagar. This process almost takes a day. And in case they fail to recover the body, help is sought from the other departments like the Indian Navy, Lakes and Water Development Authority, tourism and fire and emergency department depending upon their availability and severity of the situation.
Officials said if the rescue team is present at a distance less than 2 sq km, it could not avoid the delay but probably save life as well. In May 2011, the presence of rescue team at a distance nearer to the drowning spot saved about 15 persons in world famous Dal Lake. The drowning was caused by the heavy wind storm.
“It was possible because we were present at the time of incident. Had we not been here, we would have later recovered their dead bodies from the Lake,” recalled an official who was part of the rescue team.
The concerned rescue officials said the government should station a rescue boat at different places to avoid delay. The presence of the rescue boats after every 3 sq km in Kashmir water bodies will turn to be handy, one in case of drowning, two to rescue people at times of flood alerts. In the devastating floods of September 2014 in which about 300 people died and destruction worth Rs One crore Indian Rupees (about one lakh British Pounds) was witnessed, the absence of rescue boats left people under 15 feet water unattended. Well a disaster is an opportunity to learn how to avoid them in future. But in case of IAK it remains to be seen how it gears up to retrieve the drowned bodies early which cause a delay in their funerals.