June Issue 2015
Letter From India: Lost in the Flood
It’s been eight months since the Jhelum burst its banks and flooded Srinagar and other areas in the Kashmir Valley, but in the way people recall it, it could have been yesterday.
“Here,” says a friend accompanying me on a car journey as we passed through Pampore, “the entire town was submerged.” At another place, on the way to Bandipora, two friends tell me stories of how they swam and waded through the water to rescue people or reach supplies to those stranded on the upper floors of the houses. One of them shows me a video of a house crashing into the water that he has preserved on his phone.
In some localities, such as the posh Rajbagh, water marks are still visible on some of the houses against the slanted rays of the sun. Everywhere, the ravages of the water are still present — in the buildings that crumbled or were demolished because it was too expensive to reconstruct them, in the heaps of bricks outside homes as families try to rebuild their lives, in the roads that look like they have been gouged out with a rough razor, in the still soggy parts of Kashmir where the water has not flowed out or dried completely and the smell of sewage hangs in the air along with the dust of construction.
Virtually everyone has the same complaint — the new state government, a coalition between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which took office in March this year, has done little to begin the task of reconstruction and redevelopment. The compensation paid out to individuals was a pittance — the owner of a fully damaged house got Indian Rs 72,000; if it was partially damaged, the compensation package was over Indian Rs 3,000. Those who had insured their homes have done better. After a stern knock on the knuckles by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, insurance companies have settled almost all the claims. In fact, it’s not government but insurance companies that have made the highest flood-related payouts in Jammu and Kashmir.
Then there is one number everyone seems to have on their minds and lips — 44,000 crore. That is the number of Indian rupees that the previous Omar Abdullah government had demanded as assistance from the centre for rehabilitation work. But it has not come, at least not so far. Top PDP leaders say they will not ask for it, because they will not be seen as pleading for this money. They say that the centre must treat them on par with other disaster-hit states, for instance Uttarakhand, which was hit by a massive flood in 2013, but got an Indian Rs 6,600 crore grant for reconstruction work. An Indian Rs 1,500 crore infrastructure development package from the World Bank is being discussed, but this too is in the pipeline.
During the election campaign, the PDP had used an out and out anti-BJP platform, telling people to vote them in to keep the BJP out of the valley. When the PDP made its alliance with the same BJP, its leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had justified the alliance in the name of development. Now people are asking what the alliance was for if the centre is so reluctant to assist a state where the BJP itself is in the ruling coalition.
Even before the Modi government’s animus against internationally-funded NGOs, the Indian government was prickly about foreign aid agencies tramping around in disaster areas. During the 2005 tsunami, the UPA government told Oxfam and other such agencies that India required no help from them. And the same message went out after the floods in Jammu and Kashmir. Both people and Kashmiri political leaders are now saying that if the centre does not want to help it should not stand in the way of others helping.
Hit by a string of political controversies immediately after taking office — first the outcry over the release of Masarat Alam, the Jamaat-e-Islami leader who is likely hoping to inherit the leadership of the Hurriyat, and his swift re-arrest; then the protests in the valley about a proposal denied by the government for creating “Pandit townships” — the PDP-BJP government has still not got down to the task of governance, and it is quite apparent.
PDP leaders concede this, but also say the government’s performance cannot be judged in under three months. Critics of the PDP, who view its alliance with the BJP as a betrayal of the vote, are already happy, while supporters fervently hope that the two parties can pull some developmental rabbit out of the hat.
Another justification Mufti gave for the alliance was that he would be able to push the India-Pakistan peace process. It is spelt out in the alliance agenda document in this way: “To support and strengthen the approach and initiatives taken by the government to create a reconciliatory environment and build stakes for all in peace and development within the sub-continent.”
But there has been zero movement on the peace process since Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar travelled to Islamabad in February, just before the alliance was formed.
In an interview with this writer, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed remained upbeat about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for the sub-continent, as also the prospects for Kashmir. He said he had plans to improve the cross-LoC bus service and trade.
“I would like Kashmir to become a bridge between India and Pakistan,” he told me.
Jammu and Kashmir, he said, was the first state to be affected by hostility and bad relations between the two countries, and therefore, it had the maximum stakes in bilateral peace.
“Dialogue [between India and Pakistan] is the only answer, and here in the state, it is the ballot, not the bullet,” he said.
Hopefully, he is right.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.
Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.