Beighpora: As the noon autumn sun brightens the azure sky of Beighpora, every inbound vehicle brings a sign of hope to the destitute villagers whose properties and livestock were swept away by flooding in September.
In this sleepy village – about 55km south of the summer capital Srinagar – relief sent in mini-trucks from neighbouring districts often include blankets and cooking oil but everyone is looking for an unusual support: a high-yielding cow – the lifeline for thousands of households in Kashmir.
“My cow was the lone breadwinner for us. How will my husband feed us now? There is no work left. My children won’t be able to continue their studies. How will I pay their fees?” Shamima Banu, a woman of medium-build and frail structure, said.
About 300 people were killed and homes and businesses were severely damaged in the worst floods in over 100 years.
Banu, 40, has salvaged a few dishes and plates left behind by the flood, while her daily-wage earner husband, Abdul Ahad Wani, 45, spends his day assembling bricks from the pile of rubble that was once a quaint one-storey house.
With their source of steady income gone, her problems, Banu said, “will multiply further during the coming harsh winters”.
Cows and other cattle are treated like family members in Kashmir villages where the main source of income is from selling milk.
A high-yielding cow in south Kashmir – a bastion of milk production – is considered a crucial animal for the valley’s economy, offering employment to hundreds of thousands people.
While agriculture remains the spine of Kashmir’s economy, contributing around 40 percent to the region’s yearly income, livestock contributing the 1.3 million metric tonnes of milk consumed annually in this region, remains a key resource of this income.
“In our living memory, never ever have floods in Kashmir devastated the livestock to this extent,” the region’s top animal husbandry official, Shams-ud-Din Makhdomi, said.
So far his department has counted nearly 7,000 large animal and 700,000 poultry bird deaths, but Makhdomi said “these are just preliminary figures”, and the death toll could rise because a large portion of the valley is yet to be searched for cattle losses.
According to the officials of the sheep husbandry department, around 65,000 sheep perished in the disaster, while nearly 500,000 sheep and goats have been severely affected due to lack of fodder. This, many fear, could raise the wool prices in the region – another sector that affects a large number of people, especially rural women.
“The department is still assessing the damages. The deaths could increase in the coming days,” said Kranti Kumar Sharma, director of the valley’s sheep husbandry department. “Large swaths of crops have also been devastated largely contributing to the fodder deficiency.”
Further ahead from Banu’s house, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, 40, is a proud villager. He is one of the few men in the village who managed to save their cows, but dozens of his sheep were swept away by the raging water.
“Only a cattle owner can understand the pain of losing them. Your own son can refuse to oblige you. But these animals are always faithful. In the deadly conflict, they helped us survive…,” Wani said.
In the surrounding hamlets like Padgampora, Gulzarpora, Puchal, and Malangpora, villagers often come down to the community centre and approach delegations of surveyors, NGOs and journalists, hoping that someone may offer a cow as relief. But so far the help hasn’t come.
“Adding to the injury is the missing government and the paltry compensation that has been announced,” said Parvez Gul, a local volunteer and New Delhi-based scholar who headed the relief distribution that came from Srinagar and other areas to these villages during the initial days of the flood.
The regional government has announced payments of $273 for each lost cow, and $27.50 for every adult sheep, which the villagers and even the government officials say is a joke as compensation.
“Of course it’s not enough. A cow costs between 40,000 rupees [$651] and 90,000 rupees [$1,466]. But that’s what the state government is promising right now,” said Sharma of the sheep husbandry department. “Owners of the collapsed houses have been promised mere 76,000 rupees [$1,266]. Now imagine what kind of new structure one can build with this small amount of money?”
This has fuelled demands in the restive valley for direct international aid. There is anger over the failure of the regional government in persuading New Delhi to accept foreign aid for rebuilding the region that suffered damage estimated to be around $16.30bn.
Meanwhile, Banu of Beighpora continues to show visiting NGOs and journalists her collapsed house and the swept-away cattle shed in the hope that someone may provide her with a milking cow.