Moving beyond rescue and relief operations, the team headed by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq started reconstruction of 100 houses for the “neediest of the needy” flood-hit at the time when election process sidelined the welfare of flood-affected. Bilal Handoo reports prelude, process and progress of Mirwaiz led ‘all together’ initiative  

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq announcing ‘Akh Akis’ initiative in Jamia Masjid.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq announcing ‘Akh Akis’ initiative in Jamia Masjid.

Friday, October 10, 2014. A typical rush was mounting inside Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid reverberating with recitations. Just past 1:05 PM, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, wearing long cream-colured robe and karakul (skullcap), walked in. He offered prayers before stepping on the magnificently wood-carved pulpit to deliver his customary Friday sermon. He soon cut short his sermon though – not to strike his usual political endnote – but to announce this: a special initiative has been started to build homes for the underprivileged families ravaged in recent floods.

‘Akh Akis’ (all together) initiative of Mirwaiz-led ‘Dar-ul-Khair’ (house of charity) was about to “spread smiles” in hundred selected families left homeless in floods. “Our group ‘Dar-ul-Khair’ has been doing whatever it could to help provide emergency relief to the flood-affected families,” these words resounded inside the grand mosque, drawing people in droves.

Headed by Mirwaiz, ‘Dar-ul-Khair’ was established in 2006 “to assist and empower the marginalized sections” of Kashmiri society. “Our group provided rescue, distributed food and ran temporary relief and medical camps,” Mirwaiz continued. “And now, the same group will start a new initiative focused on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of most needy flood-ravaged families.”

The main entrance from the lawn was getting crowded, so were other entry points. Youngsters recording the speech on their cellphones stood like a fence at the back. Their unwavering eyeballs glued to the face of Mirwaiz. The cleric, meanwhile, continued: “The initiative is aimed at building homes, community and hope in Kashmir.” The crowd behind was getting restive. Occasionally, some of them would resort to sloganeering.

Mirwaiz lives in a high-walled residence at Srinagar’s Nigeen area. An enquiring cop at the gate and five guarding cops inside were alert to scroll visitors. “I have an appointment with Mirwaiz Sahab,” these words made a cop dial a number on a landline phone placed nearby. “Sir, someone has come to meet Sahab… Okay, sir!” Call ended. Cop signalled, “You can go!” A passage through a metal detector led to Mirwaiz’s office, separated from his residence by a fence.

Inside his decorated office, a picture of his slain father Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq hung on wall besides a big portrait of Jamia Masjid. In his well-furnished room, other than portraits, a stack of books on Kashmir and Islamic history rested on a shelf, right to his chair.

But before the announcement of the initiative was made from the historic Jamia Masjid, Mirwaiz Manzil of old Srinagar’s Rajouri Kadal was a busy house. Deliberations, discussions and debates were going on. The immediate motto was to move beyond rescue and relief works, and to zero in on rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Meanwhile, Jhelum receded. And soon the disappeared state government appeared with grim figures. People learned that J&K has suffered a crestfallen loss of Rs 1 trillion in floods. About 12.5 lakh families were affected and total 353864 structures were damaged. These figures emerged on September 29, 2014 in a press conference briefed by J&K Chief Secretary Mohammad Iqbal Khanday. “Preliminary estimates suggest losses of over Rs 30,000 crore to housing sector, while business sector incurred losses worth over Rs 70,000 crores,” informed grave-faced Khanday maintaining J&K had never witnessed a disaster with such an international ramifications before.

Mirwaiz stepping into the shoes of construction worker.
Mirwaiz stepping into the shoes of construction worker.

In the face of these losses, Mirwaiz group roped in professionals and volunteers to help the “neediest of the needy” flood-hit families. After adopting a community – based and led – approach to mobilize manpower and resources, the goal was to raise a total of Rs 5.2 crore to rebuild 100 single-storey houses. Each house would be built on 600 square feet land with two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. A cost on a single house was calculated as (approx) Rs 5.20 lakh.

Soon, Mirwaiz was seen visiting different parts of Kashmir to collect donations. It was something, which people saw him doing very rarely. The moment donations swelled over Rs 1 crore, Mirwaiz was laying the foundation stone of a new house for a Kashmiri Pandit in Srinagar’s Mandir Bagh on Nov 29. It was perhaps for the first time that Mirwaiz had stepped into the shoes of a construction worker wearing volunteer’s uniform. With sledge hammer in his hand, Mirwaiz was leading enthused volunteers of ‘Dar-ul-Khair’ to the construction site. They dismantled the flood-damaged houses, including the ancestral house of Kashmiri pandit, Moti Lal, a retired teacher of Mandir Bagh.

“The beginning of ‘Akh Akis’ is a befitting reply to those who were assuming the end of Kashmiri brotherhood and pointing fingers on our unity,” Mirwaiz said at a time when Jammu and Kashmir was a poll-bound state. “More than 50,000 houses were damaged in the floods in Srinagar alone but both centre and state government have left Kashmiri people estranged by conducting elections.”

Apart from Moti Lal’s house, a house of a widow at Kral Khud was built under ‘Akh Akis’ initiative. She lives a miserable life after losing her son (her sole earning hand), Mohammad Musaib on September 8. Musaib was a Class 9 student who drowned while rescuing people in Mandir Bagh.

Other than constructing house for a newspaper hawker, Ghulam Mustafa Bhat of Gaw Kadal, a house of a tailor Shabir Ahmad Bhat of Maisuma (who also lost his shop in floods) was also taken up for construction.

And, well before Mirwaiz laid the foundation of six more houses at Srinagar’s Chattabal in the second phase of ‘Akh Akis’ initiative on January 7, a delegation of ‘Dar-ul-Khair’ had distributed warm clothes and bedding among flood-affected families of Nawab Bazaar and adjoining areas.

Mirwaiz was smiling when he walked into his Nigeen office. Wearing cream-coloured Kameez Shalwar with a brown sweater, Mirwaiz Umar, 41, is the chairman of the Awami Action Committee and of one factions of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

In the beginning, Mirwaiz, sporting his signature stubble, started talking about the post-flood humanitarian crisis in valley. “All of the sudden, we were hit by catastrophic tragedy,” he began, in his typical sermonised voice. “Though I was living comparatively at safer place, but staying indoors in the face of such disaster was simply shame!”

With Jhelum diverting huge rush towards old city (termed as Mirwaiz’s ‘sphere of influence’), the cleric was on roads along with his support group, spearheading the rescue and relief operations. “It was a very tricky situation,” he cleared his throat. “Thousands of Kashmiri families were rendered homeless overnight…”

Tea arrived. He paused. Only clink of cups and spoons resonated in his office for a while.

akh_akis_title“Besides providing emergency relief,” he broke the stillness, “the need of the hour was to help families rebuild their homes.” So that, he continued over tea, “they could begin their lives back.”

By October 2014, Mirwaiz was one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. His breaking into the ‘coveted list’ prepared by Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (Jordan) coincided with his pro-activeness in rescue and relief work on home turf. Earlier as well, he managed to get a mention among Asian Heroes by the Time Magazine.

But before becoming 14th Mirwaiz in 1990 at the age of 17 after his father’s assassination, Mirwaiz Umar, an alumnus of Srinagar’s Burn Hall School, was dreaming to become a software engineer one day. That didn’t happen. Instead, he ended up becoming the founder-chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference at the age of 20 in 1993.

Mirwaiz, a protected person since his father’s assassination, has been supporting dialogue with India and Pakistan “so long as the Kashmiri aspirations are heard as well”. But apart from a political figure, Mirwaiz Umar is also seen as the ‘spiritual leader’ by a certain section of Kashmiri Muslims.

“To respond the alarming situation,” he said, reclining on his chair, “Dar-ul-Khair was at the service of people.” Once rehabilitation and reconstruction were set off, he continued, “the objective was to make the initiative entirely indigenous by raising resources from contributions of Kashmiris and abroad.” And to ensure full transparency and accountability, he said, “we made accounts externally audited and audit reports will be made public along with detailed progress reports.”

To carry out the initiative, a team comprised of architects, engineers and builders conducted surveys, designed plans and oversaw the building process. “By combining voluntary and professional skills, the aim was to build hope in Kashmir by putting the spirit of community service into action,” he said. “And to ensure proper implementation in transparent and time-bound manner, I am directly overseeing the entire process.” So far, he said, construction took place in Mandir Bagh, Chattabal, Maisuma and Suthra Shahi areas of Srinagar.

During one of those discussions inside Mirwaiz Manzil, all the talking heads were apparently finding themselves at crossroads. The problem was to make selection of 100 families in a transparent manner. But when the idea finally struck, it was decided that a team headed by Imam of Jamia Masjid would consult Masjid Committees across Kashmir to identify the genuine victims whose houses would be built on priority basis. “Shortly, we will be building houses at districts levels too for the flood-affected,” he finally struck an endnote.


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