Until Another Disaster

The calamity that befell Kashmir in the form of floods has revealed that a coherent strategy to deal with disasters is completely missing from the state government’s priorities. It is not inconvincible that there might even be a government department to deal with disasters, where loftily-designated officials draw hefty salaries. From time to time, authorities even conduct the perfunctory exercise of ‘alerting’ departments said to have a role in disaster response, the result of this meaningless flow of paper, the warp and woof of our bureaucratic setup, being the equally perfunctory framing of disaster cells and policies. The exercise begins and ends as paperwork, and gets buried in a pile of files, a tour through which would probably reveal that we are not only prepared for the ultimate eventuality of nuclear fallout, but also an attack by extraterrestrial forces.

The recent flood is a study in failures, and now is the time to learn from these failures, provided there is real will to do something in the area of preventing such calamities, or managing the aftermath. There are glaring lapses which need to be taken into account and corrected immediately. Measures like dredging the river bed which has become even shallower because of new silt, and repairing and strengthening dykes, are pretty obvious. Bold initiatives like clearing the river basin and their surroundings of all encroachments without letting vote-bank politics to interfere are also required for a reasonably sound solution to the problem. Only a couple of decades ago, boundary walls of properties in the vicinity of these bunds would begin were the slope of the bund ended. Now, everywhere the walls are constructed on the bunds itself, whose slope has become part of private properties and therefore inaccessible to authorities. The owner’s freedom and discretion with respect to the usurped bund usually results in its partial or total shaving off and subsequent weakening. That such rampant encroachment has been allowed in the first place is an indicator of the level of corruption in our government departments. It shouldn’t take much time or effort to immediately demolish these walls and reclaim embankments.

Walter Lawrence has been proved right in having said that the Jhelum was ‘a sleeping lion’ and concluding that the city of Srinagar was wrongly located. But then it is well nigh impossible to shift the state capital as good old Zainulabiddin Budshah did. The alternative would be to make the best of a seemingly impossible situation. The focus has to be on preventing such occurrences in future, not the least because of the huge economic losses the state and its people have suffered. There is an immediate need to restore the flood basin of the river and revisit projects like the railway line and other such obstructions. The capacity of the river bed itself needs to be increased several-fold. Superficial dredging won’t suffice. There is a need to deepen it as well, and to elevate embankments and reinforce them with concrete. At the same time, existing flood spill channels have also to be made free of obstructions like raised road bridges and numerous footbridges. Constructing bridges across the Jhelum in close proximity to one another has also contributed to the resistance the river waters encountered in the Raj Bagh area. Restoring old Zero Bridge, for instance, serves no purpose and has been undertaken just as vote-bank appeasement in a locality with a huge proliferation of hotels in the river basin itself. And yet another bridge is coming up in the immediate vicinity of the existing one in the area.  Such projects need to be rethought.

Sensible measures are possible only if authorities concerned shake themselves out of their characteristic apathy and languor, and politicians and their henchmen resist putting the brakes on corrective action. Civil society too has a responsibility to lend its word and weight to remedying past mistakes.

During floods, decisions like making controlled breaches must be left to specialists and kept totally free of political interference and influence. Civil and judicial activism can build pressure for necessary legislation on this aspect.