September 2014 floods incapacitated individuals, institutions and the systems. Twisted reportage by Delhi media projecting army as the main rescuer washed away a rare opportunity for security forces to get closer to Kashmir’s civil society. Now the routine billing has revived the memories, reports R S Gull
Every time, Kashmir suffered a calamity, armed forces were around. Their involvement was on display in 2005, twice in a year.
Firstly in February when massive snowfall blocked roads and triggered massive avalanches and buried the Waltengu village in south Kashmir, army swiftly flew choppers and aided the civil administration.
Later on October 5, when an earthquake flattened vast belts straddling the LoC, army was part of the protracted rescue and relief operations in Uri, and Karnah belts – the principle areas of crisis. For both these efforts, the armed forces were appreciated for the efforts they put in. Under the norms in vogue, they were paid for their operations as it entails costs. It wagged no tongues anywhere.
Almost a decade later, situation seemingly is reversed completely. Nobody in Srinagar is willing to share the credit for rescue and relief with army. As the central government adjusted part of the NDRF grants to foot the Rs 500 crore bill that army’s Operation Mega Rahat and Sahitya cost in September 2014 floods, it led to adverse commentaries.
Army launched rescue operations on September 7, afternoon when Srinagar city, Jhelum River and the Dal Lake had joined together and become a single water body. The operation concluded September 19.
Details dished out by the Defence suggested army speared 21000 personnel in Kashmir and 9000 in Jammu, besides 15 engineer task forces, 106 medical detachments and 84 IAF and Army Aviation Corps fixed wing transport aircraft and helicopters under the rescue operation. During the 12 days operation, army said it rescued 2.37 lakh people, and airlifted and distributed 2.24 lakh liters of water, 31,500 food packets, 375 ton cooked food, 2.6 ton of biscuit, 7 ton baby food, water purifying tablets, 8,200 blankets, and 650 tents for affected population. It also flew 24 RO plants, six mini-water filtration plants and heavy-duty suction pumps to Srinagar that helped alter the basics, albeit with delay. With 148 inflatable boats of NDRF, army’s 224 BAUTS boats were operating too.
While choppers were airdropping food and rescuing marooned people, the bigger aircrafts were flying people out of Kashmir (nearly 80,000) to Jammu and to Delhi. Its major transport aircrafts flew lot of heavy machinery including water purifiers, communication towers and allied equipment and fuel.
Defence forces unreported contribution in getting Kashmir back on rails was its swift action to clear the landslides and made Srinagar accessible. Restoring Poonch-Jammu highway was a major task, followed by connecting Mughal Road and Islamabad-Kishtwar road and finally relaying a stretch at Ramsu that was washed away by floods.
But these efforts were diluted by a series of factors. Firstly, the media played a spoilsport. As choppers flew and airdropped anchors over the Srinagar Ocean, TV talked more politics than relief. The operation was projected as a humanitarian effort in an enemy territory. Even separatist leaders were wrongly projected to colour the overall reportage. A competition was on display on the TV screens to project untruth as the best breaking story. A platoon of soldiers that was caught in the floods in south Kashmir was rescued by locals but the reportage suggested the two soldiers were washed away while rescuing locals!
Secondly, the state government that was itself inundated dispatched two IAS officers to airport to supervise the relief. They failed to get local inputs for many initial days as a result of which airdropped material was wasted as it did not reach the population. Almost five days after the crisis, the relief material started being sent through boats.
Thirdly, the state government overestimated the capacity of the armed forces while underestimating the flood impact on the force. With almost two-third of Badamibagh Cantonment, the home to 15 corps, under 17 ft of water including its hospital, ammunition depot, supply depot, helipad and other crucial infrastructure, at least 4000 of its soldiers, in addition to CRPF in the city, were severely impacted by the floods. Delaying their rescue had imminent consequences. Nearly 40 camps in hinterland and 30 posts near the LoC along with mini-ammunition dumps were under water. In Poonch 10 kms of LoC fencing was nowhere seen.
Fourthly, as the local volunteers were filling the gap by managing rescue and relief, they were completely erased from the TV reportage. This added to the anger. As the army aircrafts flew out the seasonal migrants, mostly labour force and tourists, residents of Kashmir had to purchase tickets to get in or out, added yet another dimension to the rescue and relief management.
Despite all this, army tried its bit to help the civilian population. While NDRF was more visible, there were army boats also in operation, mostly in and around Sonawar.
The adverse media coverage, however, created a mess. It further eroded the credibility of the government that Omar Abdullah led. He was himself flying in a chopper near Hari Singh High Street and dropping relief material when a boy from the flyover tried to throw a stone at his flying machine.
Once the Operation Mega Rahat concluded, even Omar was angry. “The IAF rescued about 1000 people (civilians) from the roofs of their houses by helicopter and one state chopper that worked with my PSO pulled out more than 300 people from their roofs,” Omar said on September 21.
Part of Srinagar was still under water, when Omar Abdullah revealed in a meeting with the local citizens that rescue is going to cost the state Rs 500 crore. The news was exclusively reported by Kashmir Life website and it triggered a serious reaction. Though a routine, it shocked people. Some thought the bill could have been raised later and many others said the bill is disproportionate to the efforts made. It led the then Home Secretary Anil Goswami to clarify on 23rd October, 2014 that neither a bill was raised nor paid. But the government knew this was for public consumption. The bill was there and it was eventually paid from the NDRF grant very recently. But all states are paying these bills. There is nothing abnormal with it. The abnormality lies in the net output of an Rs 500 crore exercise.