Did Kashmir 'abandon' its flood-hit people?

A view of residential houses submerged in flooded waters on September 10, 2014 in Srinagar Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption While waters are receding in Kashmir, some 400,000 people are feared to be stranded

The chief minister of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has told a TV news channel that his government was caught off guard by the devastating floods as it could not predict the magnitude of the disaster.

Omar Abdullah said his government did not have a "response... designed for waters of this level".

His government has been criticised for a delayed response, failing to provide regular briefings and insufficient rescue boats. The floods have killed more than 200 people in the state.

While waters are receding, some 400,000 people are still stranded in the state and food and water supplies are running low. Rescue teams have faced public anger and there have been isolated attacks by furious flood victims on rescue teams who have asked for armed escorts.

Mr Abdullah's interview with the NDTV news channel offers interesting insights into the functioning of his government when faced with an emergency.

Mr Abdullah admits that his "government couldn't respond in the first 24 hours as we didn't have a government".

"I had no government. I started rebuilding efforts with six people in a room. My secretariat, the police headquarters, the control room, fire services, hospitals, all the infrastructure was under water," he says.

"I had no cellphone and no connectivity. I am now starting to track down ministers and officers. Today I met ministers who were swept up by the floods."

Mr Abdullah praises the army for doing a "very commendable job under tough circumstances", and says that if the "people want to blame my government, so be it".

The Indian state has been often found to be slow when faced with natural calamities, but in recent years many state governments have taken proactive action to prevent casualties.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The armed forces have evacuated tens of thousands of people in Kashmir

Governments in the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh evacuated as many as 500,000 people ahead of a massive cyclone last October. Lessons had been clearly learnt from a super-cyclone in 1999 which killed more than 10,000 people in Orissa. I remember local villagers and volunteers belonging to a Hindu nationalist group carrying out relief operations and burning the dead, while government workers were conspicuous by their absence. Many remember how the Tamil Nadu government worked swiftly to rebuild areas in the state which were flattened by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

One of the main criticisms against Mr Abdullah's government is that it did not sound out a warning or begin evacuating people when the meteorological forecasts had predicted a long spell of unending monsoon rains. When the floods struck, the authorities, by their own admission were also stranded, and the government went into a limbo. Public anger has risen after reports surfaced that his ministers and families were evacuated first and moved to Jammu and Delhi.

Many say it is ironic that Mr Abdullah tweeted on Sunday that there was "nothing to panic, we will reach you, I promise".

"Then he abandoned everybody," says Shujaat Bukhari, editor of the Rising Kashmir. "This has been a complete failure of his government. Even a week after the floods, people are stranded without food and water in central areas of the main city of Srinagar. That's how bad things are."

Basharat Peer, a journalist and writer of a book on the Kashmir conflict, who is working as a volunteer in Srinagar told Reuters news agency that there is still "no clean drinking water, no medicines and food to feed the children".

No wonder the Rising Kashmir newspaper commented in an editorial in the early days of the floods that Mr Abdullah's "government has given an impression that it was in ready to tackle mode but on the ground it is not much visible". Clearly, with the rising public ire against his government, Mr Abdullah and his National Conference party will find it difficult to woo voters in the upcoming state polls next year.

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