Javed Dar / Xinhua News Agency / Landov

Post-floods, homelessness and despair in rural Kashmir

After the devastating September floods, villagers complain of no help from the government of this northern Indian state

AARIGATNOO, India — On a warm and sunny early October morning, 70-year-old Faeta Begum is grieving silently amid the rubble of what used to be her three-story home in the village of Aarigatnoo, district Kulgam. This is one of the worst affected villages in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, not far from Srinagar, the capital. She has lived here all her life, and so have her three sons who weave carpets to make a modest living for their families. The September floods that ravaged Kashmir for about a month — the worst in more than a century here — razed her house to the ground.

“We lost everything in this house,” Begum says, wiping away tears. “We don’t know where to live now.” For Begum and villagers like her, a harsh winter — and an uncertain future — awaits.

According to official figures, 282 people lost their lives and 403 were injured. More than 559 bridges, 4,350 miles of roads and hundreds of irrigation canals were heavily affected. In Srinagar alone, 91,000 houses were damaged. In a press conference held last month, Jammu and Kashmir’s chief secretary, Muhammad Iqbal Khanday, said that a preliminary assessment suggests the floods have cost the state $16.3 billion.

From the beginning, the state government appeared to struggle with the floods. First, it failed to take the threat seriously despite warnings from the weather department and other experts. “A slight flood hitting the embankment will cause large scale catastrophe in major part of Srinagar,” geologist Abdul Majid Butt warned in an article in major daily paper in May. Then the government failed to warn residents of the severity of the upcoming flood.

Post-flood, the response was even worse. The deluge swept away vital government installations. The administrative, security, health and educational infrastructure were under water. The Kashmir government could do little but look to the Indian army and the federal government to bail it out.

“In the recent devastating floods, it was observed that local youth took a lead in rescuing people in distress, risking their own lives,” says Mohammad Ashraf Fazili, who served in the state government as chief engineer of Kashmir till 2003. The response by the authorities “has been found lacking,” he adds.

Kashmiri flood victims row makeshift rafts past submerged houses in the Bemina area of Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Kashmir, September 15, 2014. More than a million people have been cut off from clean water and thousands of buildings, including hospitals, have been submerged. Rescue workers struggle to reach marooned flood victims.
Yawar Nazir / Getty Images

'Not even a needle'

Media attention focused heavily on the capital city, popular with tourists for its Dal Lake and mountain views, large swaths of which were submerged. Electricity was cut off, food was scarce, and drinking water unavailable. Survivors clung to rooftops and waited to be rescued. But in villages like Aarigatnoo, no one was paying attention when the waters began to rise.

Begum and her family managed to escape just in time, seeking refuge in a three-floor mosque nearby. Except for the clothes they were wearing, they weren’t able to salvage a single thing, “not even a needle,” Begum wails.

When her sons returned to the village, a week after the floodwaters receded, their home had been reduced to a pile of debris. They collected remnants of windows, furniture and some belongings.

Now, Begum’s family is homeless, living close to their ruined house in a temporary shelter made of steel sheets, which was built by her sons. More than a month after the disaster, she continues to look for household items to salvage from the dusty mix of concrete and broken wooden planks.

“There is 96 percent damage in this village,” says one villager, Nazir Ahmad Naik. And the houses that are still standing have developed cracks, making them unsuitable for living.

Almost all the inhabitants of Aarigatnoo, population of 1,965, are either living in makeshift sheds like Begum or have sought shelter with relatives or in neighboring villages. Almost all the agricultural land, along with the season’s crop, has been completely ruined by the floods.

Naik lost a newly built two-story house and a shop, and his previous home was destroyed as well. Gesturing toward a small stream flanked by uprooted trees that cuts through the village, he says, “Can you believe it? This used to be my land.” Now he lives in a temporary shed, while his children have found shelter elsewhere.

A paltry sum

As per state law a homeowner who has lost his house due to floods is entitled to $1,225 in compensation from Kashmir’s government. In addition, the state government has sought financial assistance from the central government. 

But Aarigatnoo’s residents say that $1,225 is not even enough to lay the foundation for a new house. And even that paltry sum has not yet reached them, says Shakeel Qalandar, the former president of Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir, a network of local businesses.

Aarigatnoo’s Ghulam Hassan Sheikh and his three sons have been tending to their damaged three-story house for 20 days now, pulling out a few broken windows and utensils from the rubble to be used in their temporary shelter. “We came to find our house in ruins a week after the floods,” says Sheikh, standing near the collapsed walls of his house. “We can’t afford to make another house now.” 

Weeks after the floods, when the local administration came to assess the damages, Sheikh was given compensation of $278. Disappointed, he returned the check. “This compensation is a joke,” he says angrily. “Three families of my three sons, a total of 19 members, lived in this house. What are they supposed to build with this meager amount?”

Raja Muhammad Shafi and his brother Raja Shamsheed outside their temporary shelter after the floods washed away their homes in Bela Slamabad, in northern Kashmir.
Majid Maqbool

In Bonyar village, too, two brothers and their families have been left homeless after the floods. Raja Muhammad Shafi says his two-story home was damaged and he had to sell his wife’s gold ornaments to build a temporary shelter on a nearby hilltop. “We also lost maize and apple crops in the floods and all our land is filled with stones brought by the flood waters,” he says. The government authorities gave him a check of 22,000 rupees, or about $360, as compensation for the loss. “I told them to keep it to themselves as I can’t even repair one room with this money,” says Shafi.

His brother, Raja Shamsheed, shows a picture of him and his two children taken near their house a week after the floods. “This is where my house used to be,” says Shamsheed, pointing at the rocks beneath his feet in the picture. “Nothing is left of it now.”

Qalander says the authorities have yet to make alternate living arrangements for the displaced people. He thinks the government should “pay the rental charges on behalf of the affected people till they make their own houses, and the banks should also provide them easy housing loans.”

In fact, instead of support from the central government, there are reports, he says, “that New Delhi is charging 650 crores [$106.2 million] to the state for rescue-and-relief operations carried out by army, Indian air force and NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] during the floods.” And while the floodwaters were still raging, Qalander continues, “The mobile-service providers even dispatched bills for the month of September, when the phones were not working.”

When the government did attempt to deliver aid, it often failed. In Bela Slamabad, one of the worst-hit villages in Baramulla district, in northern Kashmir, the villagers say the authorities provided 35 tents for the flood-affected families — but they turned out to be picnic tents that are usually used by schoolchildren and leaked whenever there was any rainfall. The families are now living in temporary shelters on a nearby hilltop, in the new tents provided by a nonprofit.

Bela Slamabad resident Raja Javiad says people are angry because none of the elected representatives or any state officials have come to see their living conditions after the floods. “Only a few government officials came here once to note down a few things in the initial days, and that visit was a month ago,” he says. “We are still waiting for their return.”

On a visit to Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced additional central government funding on Oct. 23: $28.5 million for the renovation of six major hospitals and $93 million for rebuilding damaged homes.

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