Srinagar: In the middle of the disaster whose equivalent in history seems to have no living witnesses in entire Kashmir Valley, the state government and the Indian army failed miserably in providing help to the people of Kashmir, leaving the fate of victims in the hands of civilians.
For entire Srinagar, the summer capital of the Jammu and Kashmir, the intervening night of Saturday-Sunday (September 6-7) was horrendous. Usually calm and peaceful Jhelum was behaving abnormally. And when most people might have retired to their beds, it started to spill out the excess water that had flown to Srinagar from south Kashmir. It happened nearly eight hours after the torrential rains had stopped almost miraculously, giving way to a hope-generating rainbow over the Koh-I-Maran hill.
Not many people slept in Srinagar that night; people came out to the streets to monitor the misbehaviour of the river and its interlinked channels. First, the water entered Nawab Bazar, Chotta Bazar, and Chattabal, areas of the old city, and then it started gushing into Raj Bagh, Sonwar, Hari Singh High Street, Goni Khan, Magarmal Bagh, and Lal Chowk localities of the uptown.
By midnight, Jhelum was a clear mutineer. It had broken its embankments at several spots including at Sonwar, Raj Bagh, and Abi Guzar, and the water has submerged almost the whole of civil lines.
In the critical brief period preceding submerging of the city’s major roads, a few residents escaped to safety; most others migrated to upper floors of their houses, waiting for the speedily rising water level to decide their fate.
The government was reported to have sounded Red Alert for Raj Bagh and its adjoining areas just before the Jhelum claimed this posh-considered locality of Srinagar. But the government and its disaster managers were perhaps part of the minority that could manage sound sleep that night, unaware of the disaster that was unfolding.
When water had only started to enter Lal Chowk, a senior Journalist, living in the government quarters at Press Enclave here, had called the Deputy Commissioner (DC) Srinagar Farooq Shah for updates. Shah didn’t receive the call until the Journalist called the bureaucrat’s number half a dozen times. And when he did, he rejected the possibilities of Jhelum flooding Lal Chowk.
“I called him at midnight, and he told me that the situation was under control. He asked me not to panic, and that the water not going to enter Lal Chowk. He seemed to have no idea about what was happening in and around the city centre,” narrated the Scribe, who works for one of the reputed English dailies in Kashmir.
People, who didn’t seek suggestion from the government officials, fled from Abi Guzar before the worst happened. But the Journalist, as suggested by the DC, didn’t panic, letting his wife and children stay in their house.
“Seeing the ground situation, I wasn’t convinced to spend the night in our own house. So, we went to the nearby multistorey building for the night. After DC’s advice, I promised my family that we would return home in the morning,” he said.
“But in the morning, water didn’t stop getting in to Lal Chowk. And It was gaining speed with each passing minute. I ignored the suggestion of DC, and shifted my family to a relative’s residence in NIT Hazratbal; few hours later, Lal Chowk was all submerged,” the Journalist said. “God knows what would have happened had I trusted updates of the DC.”
At dawn, chaos had conquered the deceptive calm that otherwise prevails on the streets of Srinagar. Water was still getting into the residential areas in uptown and old city. And people had started to get worried about their loved ones living in the flooded areas.
Sunday morning, not many newspapers were circulated in Srinagar. People, therefore, didn’t have access to any credible reports about the situation, which was still developing. Most cellular networks, especially in the flood-devastated areas, had stopped to operate, and by forenoon internet stopped working too.
Everyone knew that someone somewhere was in trouble, in need of their help. But to get updates about their trapped kin was literally impossible due to lack of communication. The attempts to physically verify about their condition or to help them were of no use either as all major roads had come under water.
The M A Road, Residency Road, Hari Singh High Street, Secretariat Road, Exchange Road, Court Road, and TRC Road were all under water. Physical access was limited to the JK Bank headquarters near Dalgate, and via Khanyar, no one could go beyond Baba Demb.
Qamarwari Chowk including a portion of Cement Kadal was submerged completely. Darish Kadal and Nallaband Pora Kadal were blocked too.
At noon, Jhelum had only started to enter Dal Lake at Dalgate. A lot of people had climbed the hill at Dalgate to view the destruction. A few policemen were also among the silent spectators of the destruction. And it was perhaps the last time when a cop had been spotted anywhere on the streets of Srinagar.
From top of the hill, it was clear that the flood gates at Ram Munshibagh hadn’t been opened; the water was flowing over the gates into the Tchoent Khul to reach Dal Lake. A parallel fast-flowing stream was coming through the residential areas of Sonwar, and it broke a portion of the in-between bund to merge with Tchoent Khul.
The volume and velocity of the water was enough to break anchors of a partially damaged houseboat stationed close to the JK Bank headquarters. Tossed and turned for several meters, the houseboat was smashed by the waves against the main Dalgate bridge near Boulevard. Even the hilltop seemed unsafe at that moment.
Thousands of people were on the streets, running from one spot to the next in utter chaos. The traffic had stopped moving already. The mad rush of pedestrians on the streets had made the movement of private vehicles impossible.
Young men were carrying boats from Dal Lake in private trucks to rescue their trapped relatives. The groups of youth, carrying batons and sticks, were removing the people from the railings of Tchoent Khul near Dalgate. They were worried about the cracks that, according to them, had developed in the recently extended part of the road due to flood.
Hours later, Water was flowing over the road and bridges at Dalgate, further shirking the area accessible to the public.
The government appeared to have sunk even before the people had surrendered to the never-seen-before disaster. The ministers and MLAs were nowhere to be seen, police was not visible to mind the disorder on the streets, and the bureaucrats were probably waiting for the government offices, including the civil secretariat, to be cleared off water for them to attend duties.
And the India army, which has an unconfirmed 8, 00, 000 troops present in the state, wasn’t visible either while civilians were making desperate efforts for relief and rescue of the flood victims. The much-talked about disaster management in the Valley had become, in words of one Bashir Ahmad, a local from Khanyar, “disastrous management”.
The situation was only to get worse in Srinagar in the next 12 hours, the time period Jhelum takes to fill Dal Lake. By the evening, the water level of Dal and Nigeen lakes had started to rise, threatening to submerge the residential spaces in the interiors of the lakes and the low lying areas of the old city. People had started to evacuate. All cellular communication channels were dead, completely.
And it became grimmer by Monday. Water was everywhere. Baba Demb at Khanyar had spread up to the shrine of Dastageer Sahab at one end and up to the Nallamar road on the other. All residential and commercial structures, including the Gousia Hospital, in the area were flooded. Nowpora and Khayam Chowk were submerged under several feet of water. And People from Fateh Kadal and adjoining areas were migrating to their relatives in safer localities.
Hazratbal-Khanyar road was submerged completely. On afternoon, water level at the Saida Kadal main road was high enough for people to row boats in it. Dal and Nigeen had become one enormous lake, occupying the roads, parks, and houses separating the two.
Foreshore road, Boulevard, Tailbal roads were under water.
The trunks of the Chinars on the island of Char Chinari in the centre of Dal Lake had become submerged; only tree tops at the manmade spectacle were visible from a distance.
By Monday evening, water had started to reach Kanitaar road near Lal Bazar. The interiors of Ahmada Kadal and Bhagwanpora were all flooded. Nallaband Kadal between Mill and Nowshehra was closed for traffic, and so was internal Bota Kadal.
Most families living in the areas abandoned their homes to look for safety. In absence of the government or the army, they were helped by the volunteers who were risking their lives to save the people of Kashmir.
Only a minor portion of Srinagar was spared by the flood. And it had become one big relief camp, accommodating the people rescued from flood-hit areas.
Almost every house in the area was home to two other families from uptown or from submerged parts of downtown. Every school, college, or religious institution was used to serve the victims. And the locals alone were managing the relief camps.
The essentials to these camps were supplied mostly from Ganderbal and Bandipora, donated by the people of the less-effected districts and transported to relief camps in Srinagar by the youths in private trucks and cars.
Within the next 48 hours, the only improvement was the weather, which had become bright and clear, and the sluggishly receding water level in the inundated areas. There was, however, no extension in the easily accessible area. On top of that, the shortage of fuel had caused a halt in the movement of buses and private cars; people were forced to walk or use bicycles to cover long distances. The communication channels were still down.
The closed markets forced the victims as well as rescuers to depend for food and refreshment on the community kitchens, functioning after every few meters in the city. At Nallamar Road, people had engaged a Waza (professional cooks hired to cook for large gatherings) in a free-for-all langar. Besides, people often came out with buckets of Tahri for people on the roads.
In the relief camp at Kashmir University, around 1200 people had been registered for help on Monday. But in less than 24 hours, the population of refugees had swelled to 1800 after students of the flooded NIT Hazratbal, mostly non-locals, joined it.
It took the government and the army less than a day to take the non-local students to Kargil wherefrom they were taken to Delhi. But for the average Kashmiri, the administration was doing rounds in the choppers, airdropping bananas and biscuits in the flood-hit areas; actual relief and rescue were left to public.
Later, the chief minister Omar Abdullah, in a conversation with New Delhi-based Hindi channel, gave a lame explanation to his government’s inability to help Kashmiris.
“If it was up to me, I would have stopped the rains and not let the floods occur,” he was heard saying, responding to the anger people were expressing against the government and the army.
When water level receded further on Wednesday, people’s efforts for rescue and relief improved. Hundreds of people walked through thigh-high water on the main roads from Qamarwari to badly -hit areas of Bemina, Narbal, HMT and Zainakoet.
Majority population in the areas had either fled or was living on the top floors of their houses. Those staying back, were provided essential supplies by the local youth using makeshift boats.
At Bemina, the residential colonies on either side of the road were under water high enough to drown an adult man. All houses had their ground floors were submerged under water. People walking on the main road were submerged up to their chests, and, given the flow of the water; one wrong step would mean death.
The local youths had made boats with tyre-tubes and wooden planks to carry food, water, and medicines to the families living on top floors of the houses or of the commercial complexes in the areas.
Several people had taken refuge in the office of the State Bank of India located on the top floor of the building near Bemina Bye-Pass. And in another commercial complex, women were using the balance to make chapattis with donated flour.
“They make the chapattis for us and for themselves too,” said a middle aged man who had been living with several other men inside a school bus for three days.
When people required boats for relief and rescue, army was doing rounds of the area using choppers. And it proved least helpful to the people.
An army chopper airdropped from a distance several bottles of water for the people wading from Qamarwari to Bemina. Almost all bottles were wasted as they fell in to the water that was too deep for people to walk through to get the water, demonstrating the effectiveness of the chopper service operated by the army.
“They are throwing water bottles like Nazi planes dropped bombs in World War II. God forbade, if a bottle falls on someone’s head, he will be dead on the spot,” casually commented a man Nasir Ahmad of Hyderpora Bye-Pass on seeing the army’s effort.
Minutes later, another chopper, smaller one, appeared in the sky. It went to Tatoo ground—the major army camp in the middle of Srinagar—where army men were stranded on rooftops. And it came down to their eye level to communicate with them.
In fact, people who were stranded in the area talk of worse experiences they have had with the army’s chopper operations.
“We were stranded on the top floor of our house for three days. An army chopper flew over us several times, and the army woman in it offered to help us when we asked for it. But rather than trying to rescue us, she dropped a packet of food. It fell far away in the water and was wasted,” a government employee from Zainakoet, who was rescued by his kin on Wednesday, said.
At Lal Mandi, people said the army had kept a single boat available to rescue people and to carry civilian rescuers up to the Ram Bagh bund.
“We waited for hours together for the boat to carry us across, but the single boat wasn’t enough to help the large number of people waiting for help. Then we saw a private boat in the water, but it was without the boatman.
“Out of desperation, I and at least three other persons stepped into the boat. Using a piece of plank available on the street as oar, we took the boat to bund. We had to risk our lives because there was no other option,” said Feroz Ahmad, who rescued his sister and niece from Solina.
The only real boats helping the people were arranged by the civilian rescuers.
To rescue his sister and her family from interiors of Qamarwari, a banker from Habbak had arranged a boat from Tulmulla in Ganderbal by paying its owners Rs 10,000 as the security deposit.
“We carried the boat to Qamarwari in a load carrier. And then the boatman assisting us rowed it to HMT to save my sister and her family,” he said. “Later, we carried the boat back to Tulmulla and got our money back from the owners.”
On the following days, the army had stationed its trucks on Bye-Pass close to Tengpora. But the trucks were not helping people who had to walk through water from IMI school at Bemina to the Tengpora bridge, while private trucks and tractors were carrying people across free of cost.
Marooned people living around Bemina-Tengpora stretch of the road had made boats with tin sheets to help themselves, explaining the lack of official help in the area.
“It took me four hours to make this boat,” said a young man who was rowing a boat made from a tin sheet Friday.
In the relieved parts of civil lines like Rambagh, Solina, and Chanapora, the administration continued to be invisible despite the locals having returned to their homes. The essential in the area are coming from Budgam and Chadoora, brought to the areas by civilians. And the fuel supplies are yet to be restored.
In the last few days, public has been openly expressing its anger against the administration and the army. On Saturday, if the reports are to be believed, people chased away the army and the civil administration that had appeared at the Budshah Bridge near Lal Chowk about a week after devastation.
For an average Kashmiri, the inability of the administration to help people is beyond comprehension.
“In every area of the city, there is a fire station with at least two or three fire tenders. Why couldn’t the fire tenders, which are fitted with large ladders, be used to rescue people trapped on top floors? If private trucks and tractors operated for free to carry people across the inundated roads, why couldn’t fire and emergency services do it?” questions Sheikh Mustafa who lives near the graveyard at Noorbagh.
“I am unable to understand it. Were the fire and emergency services waiting for official order or for the fire to break out in some area to be mobilised?” he asked.
The immediate challenge confronting Kashmir is to prevent the spread of deadly disease the prevalence of which is the common aftereffect of floods, to open the Jammu-Srinagar supplies to end the crisis of essentials, and dewatering of the flooded areas.
Around 300-odd cows are lying dead around the farm near Chattabal alone; the corpse of the cow at Qamarwari Chowk is making the whole area stink. The possibility of the spread of diseases is enormous, but the chemical that the government, as announced by the Minister of State for Public Health Engineering (PHE) Nazir Gurezi, is using to decompose corpses is yet to arrive in the areas where it is required.
The people of Chattabal and its adjoining areas Tuesday were making desperate pleas before media for decomposition of the stinking dead cows in the areas.
In absence of any major efforts from the government, the highway continues to remain closed, leaving the Valley without any fresh supply of essentials. The Valley is already running low of essentials with the stoks of traders in major parts of the city destroyed by the floods and those maintained by the dealers and retailers in downtown areas exhausting fast.
“Before the flood hit, we had already distributed the rice for the months of September. Now we have to wait for the extra supply that the government of India has promised,” said an official of the Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution (CAPD) department.
“Besdies,” he added, “the stocks in our main store in Srinagar have become destroyed. We cannot get the fresh supplies unless the highway opens.”
The government’s promise of using dewatering pumps ordered from Varanasi in the inundated areas is yet to make any effect as the most areas and roads of the city continue to be water logged.
The chaos is yet to subside in Srinagar. People are stilling running from pillar to post to know about their family members or the relatives who have not been heard of since the flood struck the city.
The public doesn’t seem to be expecting much of the administration that has already proven and admitted its inability to deal with the disaster.
Asked about the government and the army’s response to the disaster Kashmir is facing, elderly Noor Mohammad of old city said: “I have heard a saying that when a ship sinks, rats are the first ones to run for their life. The state government behaved like rats in the sinking ship.”