As the waters begin to recede from Jammu and Kashmir, another story is revealed — of a state government completely overpowered by a moment of unprecedented crisis. In a first person account published in The Indian Express, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, charged with not responding promptly or adequately to the disaster, has explained some of the tremendous odds his government was battling. In the first hours after tragedy struck, he says, the administration was shrunk to six people in a room, with no means of communication or transport. He speaks of key government buildings and installations, including the secretariat, the municipal offices, the hospitals as well as the police and fire control rooms, cut off by the deluge. Of an administration crippled, as Srinagar, the state capital, went under water. Of a government watching in dismay as the crisis escalated beyond all calculations. Nobody could have anticipated the worst floods in 50 years in J&K. Abdullah has done well to take on the criticism and attempt to forthrightly communicate and explain the government’s point of view.
But this wholly unprecedented moment is not likely to be seen in isolation by the people of J&K and the challenge before Abdullah is to fight the perception that this current helplessness flows from a systemic failure of governance in the state. To begin with, there were warnings that the government ignored, which meant that it faced the deluge totally unprepared. A 2010 report by the flood control department of Jammu had spoken of the capital being submerged by an intense spell of rain, yet the state government did little about it. It did nothing to curb unregulated construction in flood basins and catchment areas, which choked water bodies and added to the damage. A report by the state remote sensing centre had pointed out that the lakes and water channels in Srinagar had shrunk by half over the last century.
The real problem for the Abdullah government is that its tenure so far is seen to be full of missed opportunities to address J&K’s long-running governance deficit. The National Conference won the 2008 assembly election, which saw people voting in record numbers, on the promise of bijli, sadak, pani. But that conversation could not be sustained, the systems of local government remained broken, and the state dispensation sank back into politics
as usual. As J&K heads towards another assembly election, Abdullah will have to find a way to de-link the government’s present disarray from these larger failures. In the months to come, it will be tested on how it handles the mammoth task of rehabilitating flood victims, reconstructing devastated towns and villages, and re-establishing law and order. This government’s credibility hangs in the balance.