Anger mounts as Kashmir floodwaters subside
Oct. 02, 2014
SRINAGAR, India (AP) — As floodwaters ripped through Indian-controlled Kashmir, Abdul Majeed spent five days holed up with his family in their attic, watching helplessly as army helicopters plucked tourists from hotel rooftops and government boats ferried officials to safety.
"We shouted and signaled, but they ignored us," the businessman said.
The water has mostly receded, but Majeed's anger has not. He vows to participate in anti-India protests, dozens of which erupt daily, blocking the few roads that remain usable.
"It's clear to me that India treats Kashmiris as second-class citizens," Majeed said.
Flooding in this conflict-wracked Himalayan region in early September killed 281 people, destroyed at least 100,000 homes and caused an estimated $17 billion in damage. Hundreds of thousands of people may still be homeless by December, when temperatures typically dip below freezing.
Kashmiris' fury over what they view as a woefully inadequate government response is reviving calls for independence, tapping decades of animosity that fueled a 25-year separatist battle and an Indian military crackdown that left tens of thousands dead in the mostly Muslim region.
Four weeks after the worst of the flooding, many of Kashmir's villages and neighborhoods in the main city of Srinagar remain under several feet of water. Mountains of mud, garbage and abandoned cars line the roadsides. The stench of rotting animals hangs heavy in the air.
Kashmiris have provided much of the flood relief on their own. Community kitchens have fed tens of thousands, Kashmiri doctors working abroad have come home to help, and some 80 civic organizations, including many anti-India groups, have banded together under the umbrella Kashmir Relief Coordination.
The Indian government has helped, but Kashmiris say it has tried to take too much credit. The army and government rescued some 250,000 people who were marooned, but Kashmiris note that local volunteers and aid groups rescued another million.
"The state and army are even trying to appropriate our relief camps by filming them. That's why we had to put up green flags," local volunteer Mohammed Sadiq said at one volunteer relief camp emblazoned with a banner that read "Self-help is our duty. Self-determination is our right."
Political science professor Noor Mohammed Baba of Kashmir University said India promoted the army as the people's savior in time of disaster, missing the greater picture of devastation and losing a "massive opportunity to bridge old gaps."
"India's response to this unprecedented tragedy has reinforced Kashmiri nationalism and people's mistrust in Indian rule," he said.
Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety, while each has administered a part of it since both countries gained independence in 1947. On the Indian side, an armed rebellion that erupted in 1989 has largely been suppressed, but anti-Indian sentiment still runs deep.
Anger flared within days after the floods. Even as Indian relief workers were passing out food rations, they faced a barrage of rocks and insults hurled by Kashmiri flood victims.
Officials admit they were unprepared for the disaster.
"The scale was so enormous that it was not possible to reach out to all areas. Whatever could be done, we tried to do," Indian army's commander of northern regions, Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, said on Monday. He added that 100 military bases, including army headquarters in Srinagar, were under water.
"We had to rescue our soldiers first. You first have to get yourself in order to help others later," Hooda said.
Still, India declined an offer from the United Nations to help.
"They're neither doing enough themselves nor allowing international aid. Four weeks have passed. There are only promises," local aid worker Nissar Ahmed said at a roadside medical camp in Srinagar.
In the immediate aftermath, Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved $1.83 billion in rescue and relief funds, but Kashmir's finance department said Tuesday that no aid money had been released to the region's coffers. Kashmir is now spending $100 million from its own relief budget.
Indian workers have 200 water pumps working around the clock, and they're distributing free food rations from dozens of relief tents. But many locals, who have long resented New Delhi's control over the region, say it is too little, too late.
Indian politicians have been scrambling to reassure and placate Kashmiris. The leader of India's opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, went on an aid mission to the region Monday, along with other top party members, including her son, Rahul.
The region's High Court on Tuesday ordered the state government to answer allegations of negligence in following flood protocols.
With relief efforts still focused on sheltering victims and clearing debris, officials say it will be months before they can even look to rebuilding. The state is trying to help by offering discounted construction material "in view of nearing winter," administrator Rohit Kansal said, but the first priority is still pumping water out of low-lying neighborhoods.
That could leave hundreds of thousands homeless as winter falls over this Himalayan territory, with biting temperatures and snowstorms that render many roads impassable. Overnight temperatures already are dropping to about 11 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit).
Many are able to stay with relatives or friends on higher ground, but tens of thousands could still be stuck in relief tents unless new structures are built quickly.
"We don't have anything else to lose, except our lives in the already cold weather," said schoolteacher Muneer Ahmed, now sharing a tent with his parents, wife and two children.
Their tent stands with two dozen others, each housing a family, on the outskirts of Srinagar. There are no bathrooms; a yellow tarp wrapped around a small stand of trees serves as a makeshift toilet.
Every day, Ahmed has walked the kilometer (half-mile) to his flooded home to see if officials have pumped the water from the neighborhood. Every day, he has walked home disappointed, and increasingly bitter.
"I know there are no quick fixes," Ahmed said. "Yet again the government has failed us."
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