Historic Failure

Omar government could not have prevented the floods but had the capacity to manage it partly. R S Gull details the escape of an amphibious government from an ‘ocean’ to the hills and how it is sluggishly trying to reestablish the authority after a historic failure.

IAF choppers busy in the rescue of the people caught in the crisis.

The last pre-flood day the secretariat functioned was September 5, (Friday) when Kashmir’s down south was battling its worst flood ever. Divisional Commissioner Rohit Kansal and IGP Kashmir A G Mir failed to take the just-arrived NDRF teams to the crisis belt. That day the government came out of the closet, confirmed an overwhelming situation from Poonch to Pulwama.

Confirming that the Jhelum was flowing down with 70,000 cusecs of water, Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather sounded as if the government was preparing to compensate the losses. Flanked by Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand and Chief Secretary Iqbal Khanday, they seemed least concerned about the capital city. They neither offered any idea of preparedness nor sought questions. Asked if the causeway created in the flood spill channel was a problem, they said: not at all!

The next time, they were in the secretariat was September 22, 16 days after when it was a haunted concrete monster. In between, they all were reduced to a story each in city’s half-a-million-odd stories for survival in worst floods ever. Rather was one of the last ministers who could barely be rescued from his Tulsibagh residence to the Sales Tax headquarters where he stayed for four days.

But neither of policy-makers is remorseful of the inertia the system exhibited. “There is nobody who could have prevented this flood,” goes the frequently aired statement of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Nobody expected him to. But his government was not seen trying to manage it. They could have triggered an alarm in the most affected areas. They could have alerted the police and other reserves to face the challenge by evacuating localities. They could have created the panic, an art they have standardized.

The government knew it has rained 600 times than average and the maximum water that can pass through city-of-Kashmir is merely 45,000 cusecs. When it inundated the city, Jhelum had a discharge of 1,50,000 cusecs (Irrigation department says 120000 cusecs), a new historic first. Government’s bad arithmetic gave Kashmir a lot of pain. Decisions are based on worst-case scenarios. They revisited the best scenarios and gave themselves thumps up. Jhelum caught everybody with literally pants down.

Preventing the flood was impossible. Managing it was not. The residents of Qamarwari-Palpora came out in thousands, worked for 36 hours and tamed the severely damaged dykes and saved the city’s famous ‘five police stations’ (usually put under curfew). To reduce the government’s embarrassment, they even raised money to fund the protection works!

Usually, in flood situations, boats are hired, loaded in trucks in anticipation for transporting to affected areas. This time, people at individual levels secured boats from Wullar, drove them to Srinagar and rescued families. People believe the government could also have done the same in anticipation because it knew what is on way.

Army during the rescue. Photo: Special arrangement.

After driving Home Minister Rajnath Singh and his friend Dewinder Rana’s elder brother, now MoS in PMO, Dr Jitendra Singh from airport to Lal Ded hospital in the morning, Omar Abdullah flew to Jammu Saturday evening to receive the Prime Minister. On Sunday morning when they flew for an aerial survey, they saw Srinagar converted into an ocean. IAFs top commander’s failed to distinguish between the city, the lake and the river. “Kashmir Valley was like an ocean. We could not distinguish between Jhelum, Dal Lake and the inhabited areas,” Air Vice-Marshal Upkarjit Singh later said. “It was just one water body.”

Bidding goodbye to Modi, a nervous and dumbfounded Omar landed at the airstrip not far away from his home. The situation was frustrating. With all the institutions – civil secretariat, high court, police headquarters, police control room, district police lines, state legislature and most of the hospitals under the water, the governance was abysmally afloat and wandering.

People expected to guide were sinking. “I got an SMS from a senior officer for help and I said give me half an hour,” one of the top officers said. “The response was painful: by then I may not be alive. I am already in my attic.” It took five days for the officer to actually move out of the deluge already occupying two stories.

Not able to talk to any of his colleagues – almost all swept away by floods and some of them waiting at the airport for the first available flight to Jammu or Delhi, Omar felt lonely. Possibility of interacting with officials was bleak. He found no way of managing manpower from peripheral towns. Public broadcasting would have helped the government pass a message to the general masses. Phones would have got people in touch. But both the central subject services were wandering in water.

Omar has repeatedly said J&K lacked any governance for 36-48 hours. People, though, insist the Chief Minister is grossly conservative. With Congress’s Sham Lal, Sajjad A Kichloo and Nazir Gurezi, Omar’s availability of decision-makers was reduced to around half a dozen IAS officers, mostly who lived in JKTDC huts on Zabarwan.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah talking to a journalist from his camp office in the Palace Guest House on Gupkar. KL Image: Masood Hussain

With options limited, Omar relied heavily on the army. With massive presence across Kashmir, and impressive resources available, this was his best bet and credible fall-back cushion. Situation threw up two challenges: rescue and relief. Omar held the fort at Hari Niwas Palace and flew his two officers, Home secretary Suresh Kumar and Divisional Commissioner Rohit Kansal to supervise the operations at the airport, the other tail of the government.

As choppers started filling Srinagar skies, the government was star gazing. So were the people counting flying machines and listening to AIR, bypassing the now-paralyzed Radio Kashmir Srinagar.

But they all were mistaken. They had underestimated the floods and the spread of the army’s own infrastructure caught under waters while overestimated its interventions. The army had most of its city infrastructure under 19 ft of water, decimating its sub-area and part of the main Badami Bagh Cantonment. It was receiving distress calls from LoC and some of its ammunition depots within and outside the city were inundated and required guard as shifting them was impossible. So were its ration depots, pony centres and mulching animals. Besides, the army had to manage most of the paramilitary deployed in the city. Shariefabad was its only garrison that survived unscathed.

Crisis management systems triggered two challenges. Firstly, there were more people seeking a rescue than IAF could manage. IAF was lacking a ground contact and was taking decisions on the basis of its own assessment. Security establishments apart, it preferred tourists and non-locals at most of the places that generated anger.

Secondly, as the choppers started air-dropping relief, it was severely reacted on the ground. Though most of the relief slipped into the water from slanted roof-tops, parts that safely landed was damaged by angry youth. People never knew the relief bill was to be footed by the state and IAF was merely a courier.

The situation turned serious when Delhi TV reporters flew in choppers and stationed in the army boats and exhibited hunger for choicest bites. All these factors triggered a chain reaction forcing society to act. It was at this point that the reports of stone-pelting were linking to downsizing of rescue operations. Though finding stones in a city submerged neck-deep was a joke but there were instances of stone-pelting. In one case a boy from a weak building of Rajbagh threw a stone towards an army chopper to convey him flying machine’s rotor movement was shaking his home. Even a boy threw two stones towards a chopper that Omar was flying in. Omar said these were symbolic gestures of an angry man, nothing much. But blowing it out of proportion was to justify that system was facing obstacles in rescue, which is far from reality.

NDRF, quite neutral to the place, did a much better job than all other security agencies put together. They faced more anger than all others. Even state police, at station levels in south and north of Srinagar, with minimal manpower and zero facilities proved impressive.

A well-placed official told Kashmir Life that army and NRDF together rescued 75000 people by boat. Those rescued by the CRPF, BSF and the police, rescued more but we never counted. “The IAF rescued about 1000 people from the roofs of their houses by helicopter and one state chopper that worked with Chief Minister’s PSO pulled out more than 300 people from their roofs,” the official said. “Even Chief Minister’s all relatives including his uncles, aunts, and cousins were rescued by civil society.”

Army chopper flying over the flooded city. KL Image: Special Arrangement

When word spread that even DC Srinagar (usually the issuing authority for boats) was seeking help for rescuing his relatives, it led to the understanding that systems have collapsed. Then volunteers took over. From manning the traffic on various roads, especially the airport which was a lifeline, to managing rescue, boys were in the lead.

Some police officers tried to suggest measures to the IAS duo at the airport but were ignored. The failure in command and control created a situation that police, at one point of time, lacked even rations to feed SRDF and NRDF personnel. Most of its vehicles were fuel dry. It took police officers two days to convince the IAS officers that it is better to take relief by boat and not drop by air. On basis of the ground reports that inundated Omar government lacks better managers, Delhi flew officers to “oversee relief” (which they lacked capacity given the topography) that added yet another incompetence factor to the state government.

The two top police officers opted to supervise two relief camps – one in SSG Hqs and another in Golf Course. After being rescued from the PCR, they avoided getting to the south of the city and preferred staying around Gupkar road. For four days, Omar stated, DGPs wireless set was his only connection to the rest of the world until the army gave him a fixed satellite phone. Much later on September 14, ISRO came with its four nodes that connected the state (Omar’s iPad included for 24 x 7 bandwidth) with Disaster Management Support (DMS) Satellite communication network; a facility the government had conveniently skipped availing. Given the police wireless set up was inundated, fire services communication set up could have taken over but it was revealed later that it is defunct for four years for want of batteries!

Army wireless reconnects Omar with the world.
Army wireless reconnects Omar with the rest of the world. KL Image: Masood Hussain

Perhaps the super-cops did not move away because they were aware of the drama unfolding at Gupkar. As thousands of people landed ashore after wading through 20 ft of water, they wanted some space to sit in, take rest and rescue their relations. Ideally, Chief Minister living in the same locality should have thrown his doors open. He did not. So one day, a lot of people went to attack his residence triggering panic in the tattered government and suggestions of handing over the road to the army were made, an idea resisted by the police. Instead, they escorted Omar to Hari Niwas and kept his home locked.

But it was not Omar alone. Everybody had shut doors on the people. Police also refused to open the gates of official residences of Mufti Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who live near-by. Mufti had landed at the airport from Delhi. After finding Kashmir underwater, he took the next flight to Jammu. Ms Mufti tried to visit Children’s’ Hospital and faced a hostile crowd. Cops sealed Hari Niwas Palace. Lalit’s Grand Palace was also locked. Even the comrade Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami housed in a better villa sat inside. Only the family of Nedu’s could get into the Karan Mahal.

People were genuinely angry. They had no shelter, not even for more than 10 mothers who were rescued with their infants along with the incubators they were in from the G P Pant Hospital. All these infants died after the crowds took refuge in Zyeshtha Devi temple premises.

People managing this mess said it was a ticking time bomb. Quick decision-making led to some diffusion. SSG opened its barracks, converted it into a camp and jumped in to rescue efforts. Access to Police Golf Course was granted. Locks of Royal Springs Golf Course’s restaurant were broken to manage the provisions and eventually, the army gave the initial one-ton rice to feed the shelter-seekers. The army was requested to open the track from Gupkar to Athwajan to permit southern residents to go home through foothills. Governor N N Vohra was gracious in opening his gates to permit an exit through Raj Bhawan to the Botanical garden-Nishat track. Even herds were permitted.

But nobody in the ramshackle government could think that the tracks used to send people out could be used to get human resource from Zewan! They even kept a few hundred cops waiting at Humhama not telling them what they have to do. Later, cops were flown from Rajouri! Unlike Leh, Kargil, Rajouri and Poonch (outside the valley) which participated in relief and rescue, bad decisions by some districts added to the governance failure. In Doda, civil society wanted to dispatch famed ‘Chenab Rescuers’ to Srinagar for rescue and the DC was completely non-cooperative. They finally approached the PMO but no permission or facilitation was granted.

Aerial shot of inundated Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. KL Image: Special arrangement.

The all-powerful Gupkar was having an emergency government being run from Hari Singh’s never-used Palace (it was Malika Pukhraj who lived in it) that was the epicenter of counter-insurgency till Ghulam Nabi Azad repaired it. Even his Pir’s advised him against using the palace.

This emergency governance centre is a super-luxury hotel. Barring a few computers, most of the communications are hand-written. Its telephone lines do not work. The routine protocol is done away with – people sit where the space permits, no gate-keeping. Its public relations section, now manned by half-a-dozen Information Department officials was housed in a tent. With their main office still unfit for operation, they are still operating from this tent.

Fortified, the Palace has two possessions which give it a war-room like looks: a chopper on one end and numerous military wireless towers around. It looked more of a World War II’s retreating detachment, fleeing the battleground but still trying to stay in touch. Even though the civil secretariat is officially functional, Omar operates mostly from this palace. Both the review meetings 9 am and 7 pm, take place here.

Aerial shot of the devastated Bund of Jhelum from Lal Chowk side. KL Image: Special Arrangement

As the levels in Jhelum receded and rescue operations were nearly over, Omar started receiving his “missing” colleagues back. But their return has annoyed him in many cases because he found them having personal comforts a priority than the existential crisis Kashmir is grappling with.

Insiders in the government said Higher Education Minister Mohammad Akbar Lone had sought a suite in the 5-star Lalit’s Grand Palace. Law Minister Mir Saifullah had requested for a villa on the airport road.

Since Tulsi Bagh and Church Lane were decimated by the floods, all the ministers have lost their houses. In order to tide over the crisis, the government hired a hotel near Omar’s residence and allotted one room each to them. Some ministers like Ali Mohammad Sagar were given a room in the Palace itself.  But some ministers used to live in mansions at Jammu and Srinagar wanted their boss to be large-hearted!

“He (Omar) did not spare any minister,” one officer said. “He reprimanded many of his ministers for being unreasonable at the peak of the crisis.”

Sagar was suggested to be reasonable when he complained that more relief was going to PDP areas. CAPD minister Choudhary M Ramzan was bluffed by suggesting things which are impractical. Another minister was asked to “shut up” while trying to disrupt the presentation of a top army officer.

Even in the crisis, Omar had to manage Congress. His Deputy Tara Chand had fled to Jammu and had issued lot of transfer orders. These orders were cancelled by an administrative order on express orders of Omar. In a bid to prevent him from resorting to some other ‘mischief’, the government had to force his administrative secretary to report to Srinagar!

In Srinagar, Omar’s predecessor Ghulam Nabi Azad is trying to be an opposition leader while he is part of the government. Instead of complementing the efforts of the government, he is running his own “relief” set-up. While he has scathing criticism of the government, he has avoided talking even a bit about the abysmal performance of Congress ministers including Sham Lal Sharma, in-charge of irrigation and flood control.

The officers were not different. Though there were no roll calls people who intended to stay away, stayed away. A police officer was reported to have fled in state chopper along with the family. He was placed under suspension and soon restored with full honours. Another officer had fled to Jammu and ordered his subordinates to send his office records in a truck so that he can resume his office!

To Omar’s twice-a-day meetings, housing secretary was seen barely a couple of times though, many of his seniors think, dewatering was his responsibility. Omar reportedly shouted when Irrigation and Flood Control secretary told him his pumps can not run for want of diesel! In a day or two, Omar was used to the babudum. He told a meeting that he had asked one officer – who had allegedly gone to Delhi, where he was? The officer said he was on the ground working with the people. But his shoes shining like always, Omar asked him why there is not a taint of dirt on his shoes. The officer responded: these are non-stick Chinese shoes, Sir!

Information Department working in a makeshift tent in Hari Niwas: Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

As the government is picking up the threads to remake the governance as a new structure after floods, the pace of its revival is much slower than the society it represents. The major way-out for breaking the silence of the secretariat was to get employees from Jammu back. For them, the government has hired around 200 hotel rooms and to ensure they do not contract any epidemic, they are getting mineral water. Three villas on the airport have already been hired for two ministers and a top officer. This is happening even as their official residence are being cleaned by the government.

Spanners in sourcing relief and transporting it are proving a much larger crisis than dewatering Srinagar. There are allegations that some of the lawmakers are lifting relief and hoarding it. There are records with the government that massive relief has gone to areas where quite a fraction of it was required. Reports about an upright officer taking up the issue in a meeting with Chief Minister are already public knowledge.

Serious coordination crisis in the government is making recovery a sluggish process. Srinagar has got 2000 tons more relief that it usually lifts from the ration depots but many areas have not got it yet. Apart from free rice and in certain areas kerosene oil – against cash and on the basis of ration tickets, the government has limited the relief material. Most of the packaged water, clothes, tents, blankets, warmers, and utensils are dumped. There is a huge consignment of Italian blankets and nobody knows where they are. As many as 2500 metric tones rice sent by Chhattisgarh government in 42 bogies is lying unattended for the last seven days at the Udhampur railway station!

Dewatering efforts remained a sluggish affair. After more than three weeks most of the submerged areas are now accessible by foot. Lot of machinery was available but its proper and timely usage remained a question mark. If this is what is happening in Srinagar, it could be anybody’s guess what must be the situation in the peripheral villages.

A view of Hari Niwas where state government functioned during the flood. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

The government took 21 days to get media and talk. Political executive chooses the administrative executives to face the music. While they asserted that they were working, they said they are clueless about how Srinagar was inundated. Irrigation and Flood Control secretary Dr Pawan Kotwal said they did not use the sand-bags to manage breaches because these bags become obstacles in the flow of water.

A Kashmir Life investigation said the Irrigation and Flood Control ministry had not made any preparation to arrange the bags. After Home Secretary Anil Goswami visited Srinagar – after the floods, and asked them if they need anything, the officials said they need bags. Initiate the Jute Board was approached for 10 crore bags and later the demand was reduced to half of it. A day later, the plan was abandoned and the petroleum ministry was approached for a different bag. Initially, they were asked to supply half a million bag and later half of it. Both the agencies suggested the state to pay the money and take the supply. Finally, the idea was discarded. Who needed the bags after the flood? Would state still require it, if the procurement was to be made from private parties? If these were not required at all, why raise a demand?

2 COMMENTS

  1. kudos to the Kashmir youth inside the valley who did’nt wait for the so called govt help but took the matters in their own hands. And to the people, business people and students outside valley who amassed a huge amount of relief material.
    Hats off to you guys.

  2. Floods occurred in the Kashmir Valley because, over the years, the Jhelum river has got silted up. Embankments (bunds) have been constructed on either side of the Jhelum “to keep out floods.” When further silting occurred, the bunds were raised further. We now have the weird spectacle where the river bed is higher than street level. It is a poor solution because, when the bunds get breached, or the river overflows the bunds, the entire river empties into the city. Devastating floods then result.

    Diverting the river around Srinagar is feasible but at prohibitive cost. Firstly, a lot of land is required. Secondly, a large number of bridges will have to be built across the new river channel. Thirdly, when the new river channel gets silted up, embankments will be built on either side. Eventually, the river will again flow above street level. We will be back to square one.

    Far better to dredge and de-silt the existing river. For more details see my article at http://amolak.in/web/flood-prevention-in-the-vale-of-kashmir-by-joseph-thomas/#comments

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