Floating On Hope

It took courage and creativity to transform plastic bottles, empty water-tanks, wood planks, mattresses etc, to float thousands of marooned people to safety. Safwat Zargar reports the ‘jugaads’ technology that helped youngsters save lives          

A man sailing on container plank on a submerged road in Srinagar. The low lying areas were completely submerged in water forcing people to take shelter at safer areas. KL Image

Watching the prevailing chaos around the Srinagar city on September 7, 24-year old Shahnawaz Ahmad of old city couldn’t bear the helplessness of marooned civilians in Jawahar Nagar. Wading through neck-deep water in Lal Chowk to reach home, Shahnawaz, aided by his friends, tied three oil barrels by a nylon rope underneath a 12 feet plywood sheet and put the makeshift raft on a load carrier.

By September 11, Shahnawaz and his friends had sailed few hundred trapped civilians from Jawahar Nagar interiors to safety.

With government visible nowhere to rescue people, Shahnawaz is one of the engineers of many makeshift rafts that punctuated brownish floodwaters across Srinagar during floods.  At various places, worried relatives and well-wishers, anxious about the condition of trapped; sailed on everything floatable they could find to reach them.

A man rowing a floating thing in a locality submerged by floodwaters.

In Rajbagh, one of the worst-hit areas in the city, youth from other districts filled jute sacks with plastic bottles and loaded relief and bottled-water cases to reach the stuck civilians. Khalid Ahmad, a flood survivor who remained trapped at the third floor of his home at Rajbagh for one week, says he saw young men pushing people to safety on tyre tubes. “It was a rare sight. At first, it looked dangerous but I saw those brave youths coming back again and again to fetch people,” he says.

When floods came, it submerged everything including the government. Having less than a hundred boats for seven lakh trapped people compounded with a total breakdown of the chain of command, people, slowly inching towards death, realized the need to ensure their survival on their own.

It was then youth resembled Prophet Noah’s technique of tricking floods. The idea, which spiralled like floods, throughout the city was to turn everything floatable into Noah’s ark to sail marooned civilians to safety or at least reach them with water and food.

The inventory of these impermanent boats included things of every kind; from wooden washing-slab for dead to the rolls of synthetic foam, a sack filled with plastic bottles to light-weight aluminium coffins, and from rope-tied oil barrels beneath a plywood sheet to half-cut water tanks. Some synthetic baby swimming pools also came handy. Canoes, made of curled up and contorted corrugated tin-sheets, shimmered in the blazing sun rays falling on the inundated city. Near Solina bund, a group of volunteers, while in water, cruised boxes of medicines and insulin in tin-canoes to a relief camp near Barzulla.

At Natipora, when water swelled up to the first floor of her home, 45-year old Rifat, felt the death was near. When she looked from the upper floor of her home, there was no one around. It was all water. “At that time, my son took out the stand of the refrigerator and tied, in a criss-cross, some wooden sticks and empty plastic bottles to it. He rolled a jute-mat over it and sailed us to safety,” she says. “Today when I recall that, it looks like a miracle.”

“Can a hundred boats save seven lakh people trapped in floods? Can few dozen helicopters pluck people to safety from the roofs of their three-storey houses? What about single-storey families?” asks Sharjeel Ahmad, who works in a bank. Answers for Sharjeel’s questions seem tough, but during floods “he didn’t think about the equation of available boats and trapped people.” Instead, Sharjeel supported a rolled sheet of thermo-coal with two plastic drums and uneven ceiling planks. The result: a bumpy makeshift boat which he wittingly named Titanic. He cruised on it to reach his aunt’s home in Qamarwari. “I didn’t rescue them but stayed with them for a week in the third-storey of their house,” he says.

Aqib Ali Zargar

Ailing eighty-year-old Phazi looks too old to take a boat ride. But on September 8, she took one, though not on the boat but a half-cut water tank. Young volunteers in the Batamaloo neighbourhood of her locality, short of boats, cut down a 2000 litre plastic water tank and rowed it through the interiors of the area. One of the volunteer’s noticed a family trapped on the third storey of an old house. They navigated toward the Phazi’s house and floated her to a dry patch of land. A jugaad had saved another life.

When modern technology seemed defunct in floods, manually and hastily created rafts of wide and light-weight material not only provided succour to civilians but also facilitated information flow.

Mohammad Yunis, a resident of Mehjoor Nagar, “tasted doomsday” during floods, as his mother accompanied by his wife and two children were trapped in Raj Bagh. For days, with phone connectivity down, Yunis had no news about his family. One day, when the water level started receding, a man navigating through the area on a dinghy made of plastic oil-cans and sticks bawled to Yunis, who was sitting on the window sill of his house’s second-storey.  “He was like an angel and his words unburdened me of a colossal worry,” says Yunis, who was informed about the well-being of his family by his uncle. “I don’t remember what he was sailing on, but I remember it was not a boat.”

People creating their own devices to float over the floodwaters that submerged Kashmir for almost a fortnight.

At many instances, trapped government officials and retired police officials sailed on these rope-tied dinghies along with brave hearts from villages to reach safer places. While the rescue boats of NDRF and army proved too little for the calamity, the areas submerged beyond imagination had to deal with the situation on their own, prompting many to risk their lives on jugaads.

Before floods, how often had Kashmiris heard the Urdu proverb Doobte ko tinke ka sahara (drowning man catches at a straw). When the floods came on September 7, the subject, action and verb in the proverb belonged to a Kashmiri. And he gave a living demonstration of it.

Coming all the way from Soibugh Budgam with few other volunteers, Aqib Ali didn’t let the shortage of boats nosedive his rescue spirit. On Sunday morning (September 7) J&K Yateem Foundation’s orphanage Bait-ul-Hilal at Jawahar Nagar where some 50 orphans were living was under the deluge.

On reaching Srinagar, he collected hundreds of plastic bottles in spacious nylon bags and shaped it into a boat enough to accommodate four-five people. He had already arranged a paddle to row the trash-filled boat in swirling waters in Jawahar Nagar where the water level was touching second-storey of the buildings. Aqib had also kept a truck tyre tube along with him, in case his jugaad collapsing. It didn’t.

He along with his friends not only saved the 50 trapped students in the orphanage but dozens of other marooned locals.

(Some of the names in the story have been changed on request)

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