icon/64x64/livelihoods Livelihoods

Disaster in conflict zone, conflict over disaster

The September 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir exposed the special problems of disaster relief in a conflict zone

Effect of the September 2014 floods in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (Image by Athar Parvaiz)

One big grouse politicians and social circles in Kashmir have against the government of India is that New Delhi applied two different yardsticks while dealing with the June 2013 floods in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and the September 2014 floods in nearby Jammu and Kashmir.

Uttarakhand got a huge central financial package just weeks after the disaster. But one year after the floods, the financial assistance sought by the Jammu and Kashmir government is yet to be accepted by the central government. On the first anniversary of the September 2014 floods, this grievance was widely reflected in the local media.

Jammu and Kashmir is not like any other state in India; it is a state which has led to three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947 and has witnessed a simmering armed conflict for the past 25 years. While India and Pakistan play politics by staking claim to Jammu and Kashmir, political groups in Kashmir try their best to score over one another in proving themselves the greatest collaborators of New Delhi or Islamabad – sometimes both of them.

After elections to the state assembly last year, new Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed appreciated the strengths of Indian democracy. Simultaneously, he praised Pakistan, saying the neighbouring country had made peaceful elections possible in Kashmir. He was trying to placate the Pakistan-friendly political groups in the Kashmir Valley as also his supporters for cobbling an alliance with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at the centre.

The average BJP supporter considers just about every Kashmiri as a person in favour of a Pakistan-backed armed struggle against India in the region. Given this, many Kashmiris believe the central government would anyway have been miserly in its financial package, though it is part of the ruling coalition in the state. The Chief Minister’s statement coupled with the release of a separatist leader hardened the apparent bias.

The BJP promptly raised the issue with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) that the Chief Minister heads. Politically, it had to, having campaigned on an anti-Pakistan plank and having opposed Article 370, a section of the Indian Constitution that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

It worked to the extent that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed kept quiet when New Delhi recently cancelled foreign secretary level talks with Islamabad because Pakistan wanted to talk to the Kashmiri separatists first. But PDP’s relationship with the BJP is still struggling. The fallout is lack of aid that is desperately needed by the flood victims.

Separatists like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq have repeatedly said that since both the central and state governments “have failed” to do the needful for flood victims, Kashmiris should be allowed to seek help from the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Countries. Everyone knows the government of India is not going to allow this. What is more surprising is that such demands have not prompted New Delhi to act on its own.

Other political parties have come up with more show than substance. The current opposition party in the state assembly, National Conference, was in power when the flood struck. One year later, it organised a blood donation camp for the victims, though hardly anyone had to be taken to hospital for a grave injury – they suffered due to lack of food and shelter.

There is something very wrong with how disasters are understood and responded to in a politically volatile region like Kashmir. Even just after the floods, there were media reports that many NGOs were being harassed because they wanted to send essential supplies to the Kashmir Valley.

And this in a situation where the September 2014 flooding in Kashmir was rated the costliest disaster of the year in the annual global climate and catastrophe report.

The rescue operation – largely by soldiers – was praised in the rest of India. But in the valley, many residents complained that a few visitors who had been trapped by the floodwaters were rescued on priority while the vast majority of the flood-hit population was ignored. The issue is not so much what actually happened, but what people perceived as having happened.

Perhaps that was why the first anniversary of the disaster was marked by a complete shutdown in the Kashmir Valley. It was called by the traders’ union and was supported by civil society groups, employee unions and separatist organisations.

Effect of the September 2014 floods in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (Image by Athar Parvaiz)
Effect of the September 2014 floods in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (Image by Athar Parvaiz)