On the face of it, it would seem downright uncharitable to blame authorities for the disaster wrought by incessant rains and the subsequent floods, because man, at the end of it all, is helpless against nature’s fury. Even developed nations, at times, find themselves unable to cope with natural disasters. But even on cursory analysis, it becomes apparent that authorities cannot shrug off blame for the present situation. In fact, it is challenges like the one the state faces now, that reveal the government’s efficiency, or – as is invariably true in our case – its ineptness. Maybe, once disaster strikes the situation inevitably turns into one of helplessness. But then, that is the definition of a disaster. At such times, there is usually little that can be done on the spur of the moment. It requires prescient planning on part of the authorities to face the situation. Though disasters cannot always be foreseen, if there is a mechanism in place beforehand, it becomes easier to handle the aftermath. But, be it a few centimeters of snowfall, not to speak of a deluge of this scale, authorities in Kashmir can be seen running around like headless chicken till the crisis resolves itself.
The present instance of nature’s fury, notwithstanding its magnitude, too could also have been better managed had there been a well thought out plan for the authorities to act upon. An irrigation and flood control department actually exists, but throughout this catastrophe it has been largely invisible on the ground and any officials that do make appearances on the state-controlled media do so only to express their helplessness and even justify it. Of course, in due course of time, bills worth crores of rupees will be submitted by this very department. Not only are authorities clueless about how to deal with this situation but also in many ways they have actually contributed to the disaster. There are many areas that form a natural basin for the overflowing river and they have always been recognized as such. However, over the years, full-blown colonies have been allowed to flourish in these areas through the complicity of the land mafia and the authorities. Moreover, even when the fury of the flood became apparent, vote-bank politics attempted to ‘save’ the flood basin at the cost of the capital city itself which was a commercial hub and where vital installations, administrative offices and all major hospitals are situated leading to the complete collapse of the administration, and a disaster of catastrophic proportions. Like the fool in the story, authorities sawed off the very branch they stood on.
Kashmir has been prone to floods since antiquity, but it seems that the rulers of old were more conscious of this and made more efforts to avert disasters consequent upon the overflowing of rivers. This, in spite of the fact that they had much less available in terms of technology and manpower. There have been rulers like Lalitaditya whose exertions in the direction of proper irrigation and drainage translated into prosperity for the people. And then there have been other rulers whose neglect brought back the floods and the misery. A legendary native engineer of medieval times, Suyya Pandit, who lived during the reign of Avantivarman in the ninth century AD, is credited with clearing the gorge near Baramulla as a strategy to prevent flooding of the river Jhelum. It was the Dogra monarchs who got the flood channel constructed after a devastating flood in 1903 AD.
Alas in these modern times – the times of supposedly democratic rulers – there are neither the visionary rulers of yore nor a genius like Suyya Pandit. As a consequence, not only have many of the natural draining channels been filled but authorities have also been criminally lax in dredging rivers and overflow channels. What is more, influential people have encroached on these as well, and they have been converted into commercial or residential areas with palatial houses and shopping malls. The results are there for everyone to see, and authorities have nothing to offer except the usual self-righteous excuses and platitudes. It won’t be long before when the till-now invisible state authorities will come out on the roads in full strength to ‘deal’ with the crowds clamouring for relief and rehabilitation, label the whole affair a ‘law and order’ problem, and treat them to batons and bullets. That, after all, is the primary function of the State in our part of the world.