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J&K Floods: Lessons for the Future

The floods in J&K in September 2014 left a trail of destruction that is hard to describe. It goes without saying that the impact of such calamities falls hardest on the poorest and most disadvantaged segments of society. They live in crowded areas where basic infrastructure is minimal and relief efforts take longer to materialise and reach them. The privileged few are smaller in number and have better access to relief measures. The floods could have been prevented or at least the damage minimised if appropriate preventive action had been taken over the years such as dredging the river, maintaining the embankments and planned habitation. This was a common practise prior to independence, and should have been adhered to, but the state did not live up to its constitutional obligations on all the above. The administration was complacent and those responsible need to be held accountable for sins of commission and omission. That sadly, is unlikely to happen.

The Centre has announced generous aid packages, but the aid has to reach most victims. Already, the claimants for succour who were not affected by the floods vastly outnumber those that were. The first challenge of the administration hence would be to see that the funds are directed towards the affected populace and not towards propping up vote bases through distribution of largesse to specific political constituencies. The capacity of the steel frame to deliver is however suspect, and most people in the affected areas would be happy to see the task being delegated to the Army. This of course is outside the charter of the Army and would be counterproductive in the long run, but it does show the lack of faith of the population in the local government.

While the Army performed with outstanding zeal and efficiency, certain shortcomings need to be pointed out to prevent recurrence. Ground reports indicate a significant failure or breakdown of basic intelligence inputs. Relief efforts were hampered because the Army and other government agencies engaged in relief measures to include the intelligence Bureau, lacked detailed information of the city. Today, Google has mapping ability across most of the globe to 0.5 meters resolution capability. Yet, the security forces had no information of the roads, streets and by lanes of the city, its occupants, access points, et al. This information should have been collated during peacetime and updated on a regular basis. Had this been done, rescue efforts could have been quicker and more focused. Consequently, the feeling that the rich and powerful were being provided succour first would not have taken hold to the extent that it did and would most certainly have reduced if not eliminated incidents of stone pelting. Such data must be collated now and should be available with the Army and the central armed police forces like the BSF and CRPF who are located in the area.

Some reports indicate that Yemenis and other Arab nationals live in J&K for a period of two to three years before moving out of the state to other countries. These people are believed to be al Qaida operatives, serving their tenure in the state. Some of them marry local women and have children. Reports of such persons sodomising young children also surface from time to time but are not spoken of out of fear of the terrorist or due to social pressures. Many such foreign nationals were caught in the flash floods but accessible data of their whereabouts and activities was not available. Besides terrain mapping, there is a need to map the population, which could lead to more focused attention on anti-social elements, separatists and terrorists and their supporters. This will also help the army and the state agencies in planning of operations against such elements and in pursuing an effective perception management strategy, by enabling focused targeting of people living across the state through different media. It will also assist the state in their development effort.

In remote areas devastated by floods, the Army could look into rebuilding whole villages with prefabricated shelters. The locals could assist with the task, supported by the army. This will generate a lot of goodwill and reduce the support base of terrorist groups.  

Administratively, many lapses came to the fore. While boats and rafts were available, most were not suitable for the narrow flooded lanes, hampering rescue efforts. The state must now also look into flood management where new multi-story structures are to be built. Helipad arrangements on the roof of such buildings is common across the world and should be part of construction policy not just in J&K but across the country too. In any event, those holding responsible posts in government must be trained on disaster relief measures. Many of these worthies took shelter in the upper floors of a five star hotel, enjoying a luxurious break, when the people they were mandated to serve were suffering the horrendous consequences of the floods. These people must be dealt with administratively for dereliction of duty.

Finally, plans for strengthening the banks of the Jhelum and Chenab rivers must be taken out of their dusty files and implemented. The Centre could allocate separate funds for the purpose, but accountability must be inbuilt into the execution mechanisms. Flood management practices employed in the Gangetic plains could be considered here too, where applicable. This must go hand in hand with effective advance warning mechanisms, which can enable the people to be moved to safer areas.

The floods in J&K showed up certain weaknesses in our systems of tackling disasters, but they provide an opportunity to learn from mistakes and avoid recurrence in future. To that extent, we have a fresh window of opportunity to reach out to the people in a proactive and constructive manner. The moment must be seized as it will help in reducing the support base of terror groups and their sympathisers and bring peace back to the region.

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch is the Director, CLAWS. Some inputs for this article were provided by Mr S Mazumder.


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