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Omar Abdullah: I can’t remember another natural disaster where govt was so completely paralysed

As recovery begins in J&K, the under-fire Chief Minister explains himself exclusively to The Sunday Express.


Updated: September 14, 2014 1:03:18 pm
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addresses a press confrence in Srinagar on Friday, Sept 12, 2014. (Source: PTI Photo) Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addresses a press confrence in Srinagar on Friday, Sept 12, 2014. (Source: PTI Photo)

By Omar Abdullah

I’ve spent an awfully long time staring at this blank computer screen wondering where to start from, wondering how to put in to words what I’ve seen, felt and experienced over the last couple of weeks. The suffering and difficulty that I’ve seen the people of my state go through has been unimaginable, and at times almost overwhelming, but I want others to get a sense of what it has been like to try and lead Jammu and Kashmir through these difficult times.

It all started on the 1st of September with the rains in both Jammu and Kashmir provinces, rains that brought much relief with them because just days earlier we had actually been toying with the idea of declaring large parts of the state as drought-affected. The relief we felt slowly turned to concern, and then worry as the cloud cover refused to lift and the rain just kept falling. Water levels in the major rivers of the state — the Tawi, the Chenab and the Jhelum — kept rising, creeping steadily towards the danger mark. Lesser known rivers in areas of Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu also rose, they started to change their course and a trail of destruction followed.

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The death toll slowly mounted as reports of houses collapsing started coming in from various parts, especially the mountainous parts of Jammu.

In one tragic incident, a wedding party, including the groom, was swept away as it tried to cross a causeway, resulting in more than 50 deaths.

On the night of the 4th/5th September, a small river, the Doodh Ganga, flowing through Srinagar, burst its banks following a cloudburst in its catchment area, suddenly flooding our Bone & Joint Hospital and parts of the airport road. In an operation lasting more than half the night, the Army launched boats to reach the hospital with engineers, so that the electricity supply could be maintained.

Through all this, the government continued to function normally. We had the Honourable President in Jammu on the 1st and 2nd of September for a university function. We operated as we normally would, with the Secretariat, High Court and all government offices functioning as always. The Cabinet met in the afternoon on the 4th, and took stock of the situation arising from the rains, and announced an immediate release of 100 million rupees each for both provinces to spend on flood relief measures. While the situation was challenging, it wasn’t unmanageable, and we had a firm grip on things.

ONSET OF CRISIS

All this started to unravel on the 5th, when the water level in the Tawi river rose dramatically, and this was combined with a similar situation in the Chenab river. Jammu city saw sudden and dramatic flooding with areas along the Tawi inundated, flood control bunds were washed away, bridges was partially damaged and agricultural lands were swept away.

I came to Jammu on the 6th in the afternoon to review the damage, and used the opportunity to visit some of the relief camps to which people had been evacuated. I stayed in Jammu that night because I planned to fly back to Srinagar via Rajouri and Poonch, subject to the weather playing ball. These twin districts had seen the most deaths and the greatest losses of property, and I was acutely conscious of the fact that I hadn’t been able to reach the affected areas. Low visibility had grounded our helicopters in Jammu, and this would have been the first opportunity for me to get in to the area.

At some point that evening, I was told that the PM wanted to visit the following day to see the situation for himself and to meet with the state government. While all this was being worked out, I got a message from a friend in Delhi that his parents and other family members living in Shivpora area of Srinagar had been warned to vacate their homes and that a general alert was being announced. He wanted to know how seriously he should take this warning. I asked around and told him that it wasn’t something that should be taken lightly. His family moved out, some others did as well, but many didn’t.

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All through the night of the 6th/7th September, messages and phone calls kept coming in. People in areas where the water was rising, government officials tasked with keeping an eye on the water levels, police officials on the ground, all were passing on information about the grim situation as it unfolded. The PM’s visit to Jammu went ahead as planned with a review of the situation and the promise of help.
He was able to get an idea of the damage around Jammu city from a low level pass that his plane did over the city as it climbed out towards Srinagar.

UNPRECEDENTED HAVOC

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw as we flew over Srinagar with the PM. I can remember looking out of the window as the plane did a low circuit over the city, absolutely dumbfounded. Srinagar was largely unrecognisable from the air, familiar buildings used as landmarks had all but disappeared. The two distinct water channels flowing through the city — the Jhelum and the flood channel — had merged in to one big brown lake. Normally, the area that lies between them is full of houses, schools, bustling markets and all the other signs of a big city, but suddenly all of that was missing — replaced by a seemingly endless mass of muddy water. The PM took stock of the situation, drove down to the point at which the floodwater reached the airport, and then left, but not before promising the state all the help required, and making two specific announcements of blankets and a billion rupee assistance package to add to the similar amount already available in the State Disaster Relief Fund.

I flew across the city, and asked my pilot to criss-cross the flooded areas. I started to realise just how bad the situation was when I saw the scale of the disaster. Even now, when I think back to those images, I can’t quite reconcile them with the Srinagar I’m used to seeing when I fly over it.

I couldn’t find the roads where just 24 hours earlier I’d driven the Home Minister to give him an idea of the problem we faced — they had simply disappeared.

Single-storey homes had disappeared, larger homes had water more than halfway up their walls, the Valley’s main maternity and children’s hospitals were islands in the water, as were the Secretariat, the Assembly complex, the High Court, the Police and Fire control rooms, the Municipality headquarters, the Central Telegraph Office, the Radio Kashmir and Television studios.These buildings were all inaccessible, and have remained so.

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I landed and ordered an emergency meeting for 7 that evening, and got busy collecting reports about the situation. Initially I was relieved to find that broadband Internet services and BSNL cellphone services were functioning, but that relief was a short-lived one because a few hours later, we were effectively cut off from the rest of the world — no phones, no Internet, no roads and, once electricity went off, no access to TV stations either.

‘MISSING GOVERNMENT’

One question that has been asked again and again in many different languages and forms has been, “Where was the Omar Abdullah Government?” The government started its crisis response with six people in a room in an official guest house. When I chaired the first crisis response meeting, it consisted of the Minister for Rural Development & Panchayati Raj, the Minister for Flood Control & Irrigation, the Minister for Sheep & Animal Husbandry, the state Chief Secretary, the Director General of J&K Police and my Principal Secretary.

The Corps Commander of the Srinagar-based 15th Corps was asked to attend, and has been there for every meeting since. Our ability to communicate was limited by how far we could shout, because there was no other way to get any message across, and our freedom to travel was limited to a strip of road about two kilometres long. Those familiar with Srinagar can picture the road from the bottom of Gupkar Road to the gate of Raj Bhavan — that was the extent. Even now, as I write this, we have no diesel to operate our vehicles because the supply depots remain inaccessible.

I can’t remember a single natural disaster in the country where the government tasked with responding was so completely paralysed. We had no way to communicate with anyone, and other than a walkie talkie set with the DG Police, we were totally and completely isolated from everyone and everywhere. It would have been easy to have let a sense of complete hopelessness and despondency over come us, but we didn’t let that happen. With a sense of purpose, we set about trying to rebuild the Government while at the same time trying to give a direction to the rescue efforts.

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The Corps Commander was invaluable in reconnecting us to the rest of the world with a trio of satellite phones and he mobilised his men, with boats, to begin the rescue efforts. This in spite of the fact that large parts of his Corps HQ, including his only helipad, were under 8-10 feet of water. My Minister for Sheep & Animal Husbandry was brave beyond belief, his daughters were last heard screaming for help in their official residence where waters were reported to have climbed to the second floor of the two-floor home. He had no idea of their welfare or whereabouts, but he kept working and contributing to the efforts that were unfolding by flying to the airport and helping to coordinate activities there. My uncles, one of them seriously ill, requiring regular dialysis, and sundry other family were trapped in their homes with no contact, but I couldn’t do anything to rescue them in the immediate aftermath. In fact, my uncles came out after three days of being trapped by flagging down a private boat passing through the area.

I had no contact with my ministers beyond those present in the guest house. The Chief Secretary and DGP were similarly cut off from the people under their command. From there we have reached a point today where I’ve established contact with most of my ministers, and senior officers/heads of departments have arrived at our temporary HQ and been tasked with various assignments.

The police had been forced to vacate parts of the flooded city, and have begun to move men and material in order to re-establish their presence.

There are more than 100 relief camps run or supported by the Government in the Valley, housing more than 100,000 people, where food and shelter is being provided.

The state hospitals in the districts are being strengthened so that they can do major surgeries. Teams of doctors sent by the Central Government have been sent to these hospitals to shore up our efforts there. Similarly, hospitals in Srinagar are being restarted to cater to the demand, and these are being supplemented by the Army field hospitals and the base hospital, so that patients can be treated.

Distribution of food supplies by the Civil Supplies department has started, so that the air-dropping of supplies can be gradually scaled down as more and more areas emerge from the floods. In fact, life in large parts remained normal, and even parts of South Kashmir that had been flooded are fast improving with traffic on the roads and shops open.

A hand pump at flood-hit Hamirpur village in Pargwal Sector in Jammu. (Source: PTI )

‘NO PREPARATION’

Why didn’t we anticipate these floods? Why didn’t we prepare for this disaster, and why was our response not as good as other states that have faced similar natural disasters? All questions that I’m sure are being debated and discussed.

The simple truth is that we prepared for floods and have dealt with floods in the past, but this time the scale of the disaster swept us away for a while. We measure water at three places along the flow of the Jhelum, in the South, in Central Kashmir and in North Kashmir. The danger levels for the first two stand at 23 and 18 feet respectively. During the floods of 2006, these touched 29 feet in the South and 20 feet in Central Kashmir. This time around, the South of Kashmir recorded levels of  more than 32.6 feet and Central Kashmir 26.25 feet — both, incidentally, the highest levels ever recorded. In fact, the water probably climbed much higher, but our gauges were submerged after this point. Quite simply, we were overwhelmed, and there is no escaping that fact. Other states have been fortunate that their capital cities escaped leaving them able to respond, but as I mentioned earlier, we weren’t nearly as fortunate.

WAY FORWARD

Going ahead, it’s going to be a long, hard, and very steep climb. We have to continue with our rescue and relief efforts so long as people need them. The Army, Air Force, NDRF, and various other agencies have done a stellar job in helping to rescue people. The number of people rescued over the last five days has been in the tens of thousands. Contrary to rumours sought to be spread to discredit the operation, these can’t possibly all be VIPs and tourists, and in fact, include a large number of Srinagar residents needing evacuation.

The state government is going to have to ramp up its capacity to continue to get supplies in to the areas that most need them. The police will have to continue to take control of the parts of the city where a climate of lawlessness is sought to be created.

Once the initial rescue operation winds down, ensuring that people get adequate and timely compensation with little or no red tape will have to be a priority. At the same time, reconstruction of damaged public property will have to be expedited. While all this is happening, all-out efforts to check the spread of disease, especially water-borne diseases, will have to be at the top of our list of priorities.

Parents are concerned about children’s education, and who can blame them? The state government will rework the examination schedule in such a way that children don’t suffer on account of the floods.

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The banks are moving to reassure people that their deposits are safe, and at the same time they are working to restart branches and ATMs so that people can withdraw money. Making sure that people’s mobile phones aren’t disconnected for delayed payment of bills may appear to be a small thing, but will be the difference between being able to speak to their family or not. We are trying to think of every possible step that can be taken to help people in this time of crisis.

This flood has brought out the best in people, people who have rallied to help total strangers, friends and family have opened their doors to each other to give people a place to stay, people who have set up relief camps and self help groups to organise rescue efforts. Alas, this flood has also brought out the worst in some of us, the people who have stoned and sabotaged the rescue efforts, the people who have broken in to abandoned houses to rob them, the people who have charged astronomical sums of money to rescue people, while at the same time slashing NDRF boats so that those can’t be used. This tragedy would have been bad enough without some people letting their politics and personal agendas cloud the rescue and relief efforts.

What I have experienced in the last few days has been nothing compared to what the people who have lost loved ones in this tragedy have gone through. I go home every night painfully conscious that there are thousands who have lost everything in this flood, thousands who will have to rebuild their lives from scratch. The pain and suffering I see the people going through is haunting, made worse by my sense of frustration at not being able to do everything I wish I could do. This feeling is only marginally tempered by the realisation that I’m doing the very best that I can, even if it doesn’t appear to be quite adequate.

None of what I’ve written is in any way offered as an excuse or a defence of what went wrong in the first couple of days of this crisis. It is simply an attempt to give you a perspective of what it has been like to try and lead this state during this difficult time. I bear my critics no ill will — in fact, if anything, I’m grateful for their criticism because it has given me strength and motivation to continue to press forward, to just never give in.

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