Omar government sat pretty on flood warnings: Beg

GN Bureau | October 10, 2014


Muhammad Saleem Beg, member, national monuments commission of India

Muhammad Saleem Beg has served as director-general, tourism, in Jammu and Kashmir and also headed the state chapter of INTACH before being elevated to the statutory commission involved in protecting India’s rich cultural and archeological wealth. Hailing from Srinagar, Beg spoke to Governance Now about the recent Kashmir flood. Excerpts:

How much of the flood in Kashmir was manmade?
Kashmir has a natural tendency for floods due to its peculiar topography. The valley is like a bowl in which five river basins – Lidder, Vaishav, Jhelum, Sindh and Rambi Aara – discharge their water. Keeping that in view, the government would have easily worked towards preventing and mitigating the flood situation that finally devastated Srinagar. A serious approach would have prevented losses and sufferings – whatever the intensity of the flood. There is a clear failure.

[Also read: Srinagar floods: A story of man's greed and nature's fury]

How did governments in the past deal with such a situation?
 Srinagar had a network of flood sinks – canals, flood channels, lagoons, lakes etc. – that served a lot of other purposes too. These were navigational canals and also added to the beauty of the city. But the real purpose of these water bodies was to regulate waters that would often flood Kashmir and particularly save Srinagar city. The Wular lake, for example, was the biggest flood sink for Jhelum. All these have either vanished or degraded over the years, thus exacerbating the situation.

What were the traditional standard operating procedures to prevent floods in Kashmir?
Governments were always well prepared to first prevent and then face the floods. Among the most useful early warning systems was the monitoring of Jhelum’s levels at Sangam, Bijebehara, 60 km upstream (of) Srinagar. If the water was rising dangerously there, then the government knew that it will reach Srinagar in 24 hours. Immediately, its machinery would swing into hectic preparations. Kashmir is the only place in India where the government had appointed bund inspectors, who would keep an eye on illegal mining and encroachments on the banks. At the first hint of an impending flood, the flood control department would ready boats, shovels and plastic bags. The bags would be used as sandbags to fortify potential breech points on the river bank. Also, a rescue plan would be quickly put in place.
Apart from this, each district had flood committee headed by the district commissioner which was to become active at the first warning of floods. Unfortunately, these SOPs are not being followed strictly and the result is for all of us to see.

So, you mean the J&K government has clearly failed?
I wonder as to how the chief minister can say that his government was not prepared to face this fury. On September 3, the meteorological department had predicted heavy downpour across J&K as there was a heavy depression hovering over the state. The downpour started on the morning of September 7. The government clearly had four days to prepare itself for the eventuality. Now, if sitting in New Delhi I could see the weather prediction on my computer, how come an entire government machinery did not anticipate the emergency? The fact is that J&K government virtually sat on these predictions.

The Omar Abdullah government says that it sent a proposal to the central government for an elaborate flood control plan that was not cleared.

Yes, the J&K government had sent a proposal to the centre back in 2010. But this cannot be an excuse for the government for not doing its bit when it saw the catastrophe coming. How about their own preparedness? Were they only waiting for the money to come? Remember, there is always scepticism at the centre when the J&K government asks for money. How much seriousness had the state government shown in using its own means to mitigate the flood situation? Their (state government’s) job is not over with sending a proposal to the centre. How seriously did the J&K government pursue the proposal with the centre? From this it appears they were only interested in the money.

What is the way forward or the lesson to be drawn from the J&K flood?
First, we must learn not to fight nature. For this all flood sinks and water bodies, which acted like sponges to absorb the spillover water from the rivers and save lives, have to be restored on priority basis. Second, we have to recognise the fact that Kashmir is geologically a disaster-prone area where floods and earthquakes occur frequently. So, the building laws have to be amended in order to safeguard lives in case of a natural calamity.

Have the two decades of insurgency taken its toll on governance and institutions in Kashmir?
Surely it has. Due to these years of militancy, there is total collapse of monitoring systems in Kashmir – be it in the field of education, health system or flood management. The bad handling of floods by the current government is just one manifestation of this collapse. This also needs to be corrected.

(This interview appeared in the October 01-15, 2014 print issue)

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