ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2018.
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Nature's fury, when it decides to strike, is far more merciless and devastating than all the destructive powers of modern warfare. We are still not finished with the Kashmir tragedy, which reduced the entire valley to a sea, taking hundreds of lives, submerging lakhs of homes, throwing families and loved ones asunder, and destroying public property worth thousands of crores.
As I write this, the downpour has stopped, the floods are subsiding, but more death becomes visible. The tragedy will continue for months to come, before some form of normalcy returns to paradise. No doubt, time will do its healing, as it passes by, and hopefully, the Prime Minister's Rs 1,000 crore relief for this national disaster will reach the right persons, and for getting the infrastructure and connectivity back to some shape.
The Kashmir floods took the state and the nation by shock. An honest and rigorous analysis is necessary to identify where the administration and government went wrong, why there were no early warnings and why no preventive measures could be taken to mitigate this mega disaster. Unprecedented heavy rains in J&K continued from 2 September, for which no warning had been given by the several weather forecasting agencies that we have in our country. Some warning appears to have been given by the local authorities, but was apparently ignored.
The plunder of environment fed by greed, has a close correlation with natural disasters. The science of climate change is developing rapidly, and providing us greater information regarding reduction of forest cover, silting of rivers and changing river courses, urbanisation and lust for land devouring natural lakes and riverbeds. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reports that "In the last 100 years, more than 50 per cent of the lakes, ponds and wetlands of Srinagar have been encroached upon for constructing buildings and roads."
Traditional safety systems have been buried under greed and the desire for a fast buck. Riverbeds and lowlands by the side of water bodies, that were traditionally left vacant to act as natural flood absorbers, have now been encroached upon and become fragile residential communities and villages. Waterways have been drained to become roads, and there is no natural topography available anymore to divert floodwater. It is these very settlements and villages that were most vulnerable and became submerged.
Compounding our aggression over our environment is the fact that we seem so incapable of building an efficient and integrated disaster management system, which can respond quickly and includes early warning, prevention and mitigation drills that actually work. And this despite the fact that we have had natural disasters of great magnitude during the last two decades, beginning from the Orissa cyclone, which caught everyone unprepared. The performance of the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), which carries the mandate to strategise and implement disaster management policies and actions in an integrated manner, right from the Centre to the district level, has also been a disaster. They were unable to provide early warning of the impending floods, alert and evacuate people, or execute a rescue and safety plan for them. From all accounts, the State Disaster Management Authority seems to be either non-existent or non-functional. Only states like Gujarat and Orissa have shown initiative and pro-activity in this area.
None of the Central or state agencies responsible for monitoring natural disasters and providing early warning, such as, the Central Water Commission, Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), Disaster Management Support (DMS), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), or Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), forecast the floods. The Disaster Management Division (DM Division), which compiles inputs from all the agencies, had nothing to report on 2 September 2014. Therefore, two days later, as water levels were rising and rivers were in spate, there was no National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) support available in J&K. They arrived only around 7-8 September, after the worst havoc. The tardy response of the state and Central government disaster management outfits can only be termed as an unpardonable failure.
But the first serious casualty of the flood was Omar Abdulla's state government, which went completely missing. It is reported that all that remained to handle the emergency was the Chief Minister, his chief secretary and DGP. The rest of his government was either disconnected and untraceable or had travelled to safer havens. The Army became the only humanitarian agency and the greatest saviour of J&K, and did a magnificent job of search, rescue and emergency reconstruction of communication wherever possible, also tapping social media to assist in search and rescue. The Central government did its best to provide aircraft, boats, generator sets, tents, food and water, medical teams and other resources from all corners of the country.
The ones to come out worst in this crisis are the JKLF separatists. Their chief Yasin Malik was caught on camera disrupting rescue and relief operations, pelting stones and forcing ailing lady patients to get off Army relief boats. Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani thought it most fit to contribute in relief operations by appealing to the Pakistan Army to come to the aid of the Kashmiri people. We are proud of our armed forces and the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) who have earned appreciation nationally and internationally for carrying out its humanitarian tasks, in spite of personal losses suffered by them.
The tragedy of the floods takes me back to the Kashmir problem that I have been working on for more than a decade, with great hope. Sometimes, I tend to become a little disheartened when I think of all the opportunities that we have missed in finding a solution to our Kashmir problem. I was in Srinagar at the invitation of the Jammu and Kashmir Peace Foundation in mid August. Najma Heptullah attended the main function and left, but I stayed on for four days and interacted with the people. I was touched with the extraordinary affection and enthusiasm that greeted me.
On the last day, I met Shabir Shah, Farooq Abdullah's sister, Begum Khalida Shah, and Prof Ghani. During my visit, I was assured by Prof Ghani that he would work with me and we shall not disappoint each other. A similar promise was made by Shabir Shah and his team. I made it abundantly clear to everyone that while they had all the liberty to meet the Pakistan high commissioner, under no circumstances could they retract from the commitments and agreements that we have achieved already through the Kashmir Committee. These are:
1. Terrorism and violence are taboo.
2. A lasting and honourable peaceful resolution must and can be found
3. The resolution must be acceptable to all political elements and regions of the state.
4. Extremist positions held by all for the last five decades have to be and will be abandoned.
5. Kashmiri Pandits will be rehabilitated with honour and rights of equality.
I am sure the new government has been briefed about the achievements of the Kashmir Committee led by me, and what it has achieved in the last decade. It sounds a little trite and insecure for a mature power like India to cut off talks with Pakistan merely because the latter decided to speak to the separatists, their erstwhile supporters in Kashmir. It is quite likely that Pakistan would advise them to get into a more settlement anxious mood. I am informed that even our communication to the Pakistan High Commission was belated, and came only after one of the Hurriyat leaders had already met him. The Prime Minister has met his Chinese counterpart this week, even as the Chinese have indulged in intrusions in the Demchok area of Ladakh, a stale old tactic they have used for decades every time there is a significant diplomatic event between the Indian and Chinese governments. But the talks went on.
The secession of Kashmir from India is out of question, but autonomy as much as is consistent with national good must be conceded. My own view is that India should strongly work for a secular democracy in Pakistan that provides equality to religious minorities. Because if we do not do so, we would willy-nilly be supporting the Pakistan army and ISI. Our decision to cancel the talks may have ended up doing just that at a time when Pakistan's democracy was under immense pressure.