Musafir Says

Floody mess


Flood affected being taken to safer grounds by tractor south of Srinagar
Flood affected being taken to safer grounds by tractor south of Srinagar

Two years, two devastating floods hit India’s eco sensitive mountainous north. Coincidence? Maybe. Regular occurrence? After all, the northern plains, from Assam to Punjab, get flooded almost annually, yet there is no hue and cry about them, apart from adequate preparedness about tackling flood victims. There are regular floods in many other parts of the nation, and rightfully so, for most of India gets about 90 per cent of its rainfall during the three monsoon months. And how does it all tie in with tourism?

Just as the last June’s floods in Uttarakhand did, the floods in Kashmir have hit a raw nerve somewhere. The initial round of political pointing fingers has now instead led to greater cooperation between agencies and political parties about how deal with them.

The devastation is extreme. An estimated 600,000 people have been stranded in India’s flooded Kashmir for the past week. An even greater number have been affected in Pakistan. More than 200 people on both sides of the border have been swept away by the waters, and many remain missing, or holed up without contact with the outside world.  Chief Minister Omar Abdullah says it is unprecedented, and while he may be incorrect, ground reports seem to suggest devastation in such magnitude has not come in living memory. About 2,500 roads and 163 small bridges have been damaged. 

Environmentalists, especially those who caution against unplanned development, are of course an unpopular lot. The previous UPA II government as well as the current government’s position on environmental safeguards is well below ideal. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what excuses the government makes as it plans to go ahead with an unprecedented development spree.

Kashmir, after years of political tragedy, has had a semblance of normalcy in the past few years. Along with that came a return of tourism, and the need to cater the increased demands of ever more affluent and demanding tourists. The Kashmir valley has had a history of monsoon flooding, and therefore the need for a flood plain. In recent years, there has been unchecked encroachment of these river beds, with even government buildings, besides a host of private buildings, including hotels without any environmental clearances, come up.

Floods not being new, were dealt with in traditional ways. Only people who had river-related occupations, such as fisher folk or boatmen, tended to live by the river.  They were adept at recognising flood warnings, and would evacuate immediately at the first warning. Residential areas were traditionally built on higher ground. The lay of the land was a natural ally in diverting flood water.

Experts have been warning against such devastation. Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People says floods in Kashmir have happened because of a combination of urban policy and programme failures. Carrying capacities are untested in India, and have generally survived as populations in eco sensitive regions have been low. That is fast changing.

It is being estimated that infrastructure recovery will take Rs 6,000 crore. Personal losses of course have mattered less in such national accounting. Even those pushing for accelerated growth need to consider this – the tourism business in Uttarakhand is down to less than half the levels of what it was just before the floods. Business is indeed down.  

The worrying part is, there is still no effort at recognising why nature needs her space, how humans will have to learn to not overburden nature with their unchecked ‘growth’. And no lessons learnt from previous accidents, as the Uttarakhand and Kashmir instances show. Disaster preparedness is not in the Indian DNA, says a report, but till such a gene is identified, India will sure deal with increasing events such as these even more regularly. Cancelling birthday celebrations, even if by the prime minister, are simply not going to cut it. 


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