Kashmir Floods: Bringing Out the Best and the Worst in Us

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THE prominent Austrian born Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl spent three years in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau. He was sent to the Nazi concentration camps with his parents and wife. When his camp was liberated after three years, his pregnant wife and most of his family had perished. In 1946, after he had gained freedom, he wrote his iconic book ‘’Man’s Search for Meaning.’’ The book was written in just nine days and is about his experience in the concentration camps. Frankl notes that the difference between those who died in the camps and those who lived came down to one thing: Meaning. Talking of meaning, he describes various instances in the book and says that those who found meaning in their life even in the most abominable conditions were far more resilient and prepared to suffer than those who were not.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” In the early days of September 2014, as pictures began to emerge out of Kashmir, from the flood ravaged areas in Srinagar, I was immediately reminded of this quote from the book. Over the next few weeks, as more news and pictures emerged, not only from Srinagar, but other flood affected areas of the valley, this belief in man’s resilience and choosing one’s attitude to his circumstances, suffering and extreme hardship began to reinforce itself. As news and pictures of the devastation began to emerge, one could not believe one’s eyes. Srinagar city had become one huge lake, with large swathes of land in the city completely submerged. Houses in most areas, especially in the civil lines were inundated upto two or even three storeys. The administration had collapsed on the first day of the floods and in such perilous conditions, people were left to fend for themselves. News channels began to show rescue operations being carried out by the Army and the NDRF. Given the scale of the floods, these efforts were small and could rescue only a small number of the marooned people. People had taken refuge in the upper storey of their houses and started rationing whatever food and water was available. With no signs of the Govt, people who were not affected by the floods began their own rescue and relief operations. With hardly any resources to rescue the affected people, it needed some ingenious and original thinking on part of the people who were to launch rescue operations in these areas. What followed then was a rescue operation worked on a mix of bravery, courage, resilience, ingenuity and common sense. As the roads were under water and there was no way to reach the flood affected people, the rescuers began to think of creative ways to reach them. There were hardly any boats, barring the 200 odd that the NDRF teams had pressed into service. What made matters worse was the fact that the listless administration had no clue to respond to this crisis and it could not use the Govt. machinery from other districts to press into service. So the volunteers began to use whatever was available and could be made to reach the flood affected people. They used contraptions of all kinds to wade through waters. There were wooden sheets tied to tyre tubes or even tin sheets shaped into boats. At many places sheets of plastic foam were rolled into bundles, wrapped inside a waterproof material, tied by ropes and used to rescue people.  These seemingly crazy ideas saved the life of thousands of people and perhaps helped avert what could have been a major tragedy in Srinagar in terms of loss of life.

Not only in the valley, Kashmiris outside the valley and non Kashmiris as well began to mobilise resources — food packets, medicine, chlorine tablets, blankets, sanitary napkins, boats, water bottles and whatever was needed to help people in Srinagar and other affected parts of the State. There was an amazing camaraderie at display. Across cities in India, there were concerted efforts to mobilize help for the flood victims and various NGOs also began to coordinate these relief efforts. Indigo Airlines began to airlift the relief supplies to Srinagar at no extra cost. These relief efforts became more organized and focused as hospitals and nursing homes in non flood hit areas of Srinagar like Sanat Nagar began to double up as relief centres as well. Mosques and Gurdwaras were also used to provide food and shelter to those rescued from the flooded areas. In fact, it was the Gurdwara in the Baghat area of Srinagar which showed the way in organizing the relief work and setting up community kitchens.  In all this chaos and confusion, many people didn’t want to leave their houses, despite being marooned, since there was threat of burglary. There were also allegations that many boat owners charged hefty sums to rescue people. But those were rare incidences.  Overall, the volunteers worked tirelessly, almost round the clock and at times putting their own life at peril and driven by nothing but pure altruism. These selfless volunteers were, as Maya Angelou would call, ‘’a rainbow in someone’s cloud’’.

Hundreds of houses had collapsed, thousands had been flooded and couldn’t be immediately used for living. This was a crisis of mammoth proportions for which the Sate Govt was ill prepared. Not only were houses damaged and broken, but people lost their lifetime savings and businesses as well, with floods damaging shops in the flooded areas.

The scale of floods that Kashmir witnessed in September last year was not seen in more than a century. But in terms of the loss to property and businesses, it was unprecedented. Despite such scale of loss and devastation, the J and K Govt’s response during and after the floods, in rescue and relief operations, was shoddy. A relief package of RS 44,000 crore was sought from the Central Govt, without making a proper assessment of the loss. Today, after a year of the floods, most victims of these floods have been left in the lurch, with hardly any Govt support or assistance coming their way. Many victims are still reeling under the shock of the floods, with whatever they had made in a lifetime, bit by bit, washed away in a matter of few hours. Even Kashmiri society, despite showing such resilience, courage and camaraderie in dealing with the floods, showed a clear lack of direction and purpose in dealing with the aftermath of this crisis. To begin with, pointed questions have never been asked of the authorities, not only for abandoning the flood victims when they needed them the most, but also how Kashmir came to such a stage where a mere rainfall now sends alarm bells ringing in anticipation of a flood. We blamed everyone for the floods – the Rajbagh Girls, our ‘immoral’ ways, ‘Western Culture’ and also used the mother of all smokescreens: Our fatalism. We even organised congregational repentance gatherings (Ijtimaee Tauba), but we refused and continue to refuse looking within. We feel uncomfortable asking uncomfortable questions. The fact that we have lost our major water bodies to indiscriminate constructions, illegal encroachments, allowed our forests to be plundered and have built a major portion of Srinagar city without any trace of urban planning is a pointer to why Kashmir has become so prone to floods and other vagaries of nature. When you have unregulated residential colonies coming up everywhere, especially in marshy and low lying areas, one need not be surprised at the scale of these floods. Why don’t we hear media organizations, political outfits, religious bodies and the civil society making a concerted effort in raising awareness about this blatant plunder and asking for punishing the culprits? Unless heads roll, illegal buildings are demolished, bureaucrats punished for sanctioning illegal constructions and the culprits who have built illegal structures in lakes and on river banks, taken to task, nothing much will change. A society which is so indifferent to its own plunder will always subvert truth and come up with convoluted arguments instead. With such listless and uninspiring political leadership and an indifferent society, fatalism becomes our first refuge. Once we are done with filling our lakes and constructing buildings on river banks, we can start a new construction boom on graveyards. After all, the dead don’t speak nor do they complain. Kashmiri society is an epitome of that deafening silence and indifference. We have been complicit in our own destruction.  

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