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Kashmir – The Price Of Lessons Unlearnt

Srinagar could have been saved had the authorities heeded time-tested protocol 

Photo: Abid Bhat

The Hindu festival of Rakshabandhan was never a Kashmiri Pandit event. Instead, they celebrate zarm satam, which marks the onset of cooler weather. And just after that, Kashmir gets rains, which bring floods in their wake. So, the festival also has rituals associated with the river. Around that time, the mosques too reverberate with incantations seeking the protection of crops. Both are instances of following the ancient practice of trying to tame the fury of nature through prayers.

To placate the Jhelum, which is venerated as the sustainer of life in Kashmir, it was given the status of mother, whose birthday was celebrated every year. The normally placid river is the only outlet in the Valley that drains out water from at least five major sub-basins, which bring in glacial melts and join the Jhelum at various points. Beyond Sopore town, the waters flow from the mountain bowl of Kashmir towards the Punjab plains.

Floods occur when the water flow due to continuous rainfall in the catchment areas exceeds the river’s carrying capacity. This time, five days of incessant rain caused the river to swell to enormous levels, causing destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Kashmir has always been expecting and preparing for floods. The traditional knowledge on floods had been processed into a protocol of precautionary measures at least by the early 19th century. After the 1902 floods, village headmen were asked to oversee the raised flood-protection platforms (bunds) that run along streams and rivers. The local community would invariably be involved in repairing and strengthening the bunds and guarding them during floods.

The canals in the Valley, too, have had the dual purpose of irrigation and flood control. A flood-spill channel was constructed in 1905 to divert excess waters that would otherwise inundate Srinagar.

A flood control wing was created in the state in the early 20th century and subsequently upgraded to a department. Until the 1980s, there used to be functional District Flood Committees (DFC), headed by the deputy commissioner and with a senior engineer as the secretary. The DFCs used to hold regular meetings and after spring, flood rehearsals would be undertaken in every district.

The state had a flood manual much before the rest of the country. It detailed how the administration should respond to various levels gauged at the Sangam, an upstream location in Anantnag. A flood alert at Sangam entailed setting up of control rooms throughout the administrative units in Kashmir, which would marshal supplies such as sandbags required for filling the breaches.

It was a prime responsibility of the state administration to strengthen the bunds and protect the flood channels and canals. These assets were regularly inspected and protected by the state, which also employed bund-watchers.

How much the state machinery has moved away from this time-tested protocol is evident from just one example. The flood control department has been trumpeting a 2010 report that had predicted a massive flood and inundation of Srinagar. The department was given Rs 97 crore to restore the flood channel to its installed capacity of 16,000 cusecs from the current reduced capacity of 6,000 cusecs. Under this project, while the channel was being dredged, a fully macadamised causeway was constructed on its bed close to its origin at Wazir Bagh. This causeway hampered the flow in the channel, created a reverse flow and breached it, resulting in water rushing into the uptown colonies. This criminal act speaks volumes about the callousness and incompetence of the state administration.

Indeed, Kashmir has never been so unprepared in facing floods. We are told that nobody anticipated such a fury. Srinagar was flooded on 7 September. Facebook was replete with warnings from 3 September. A post by one of my friends read: “My sense of things here tells me that we are in for a major flood.” The weatherman gave precise forecasts of heavy rains for five days. If only anyone in the administration had the time, inclination and sense of responsibility, Srinagar would have been saved from the horrors inflicted by the flood, if not the flood per se.

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(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 41, Dated 11 October 2014)

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