INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

The earthquake that flattened entire villages along the Line of Control and left thousands homeless and hungry proves that India still does not have a disaster management mechanism in place.
CALL OF DUTY: Soldiers carry an injured person after airlifting him from Uri to Srinagar

Bashir Ahmed Mir is no stranger to death. He has lived with it almost every day of his 45 years, with Pakistani artillery raining fire on his tiny village Jabla on the Line of Control (loc). War has numbed him, so has devastation. Yet nothing had prepared him for the havoc of Saturday morning. He was taking a nap, having had his pre-dawn Ramazan meal. At first there was a tiny creaking sound, the kind made while walking up and down wooden stairs. He ignored it. But not for long. Within a few seconds, it rose to a shattering noise. As Mir woke up and looked outside his window, his entire world changed in a flash. One moment his wife and one of his three children were running towards the fields. In another instant, he was out of the house. In a third, brick and mud rained down on him as the earth cracked and his home came crashing down.

On Saturday morning, while the rest of India enjoyed a morning cup of tea and planned the beginning of the weekend, Mir's two sons, bright and sturdy boys of eight and 10, were dead. His home, a 50-year-old house inherited from his father, was in a heap. In one of the most dangerous places on earth, it was nature, not man, which wrought such destruction. Mir's tragedy was repeated across the Valley with a deadly staccato. In his village alone, all the 300 houses were reduced to rubble. Worse, 18 people were killed. The earthquake made Uri an international dateline just months after the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was reopened after almost six decades. With its epicentre in Muzaffarabad, the quake blocked this road with a huge mountain slip near Jhola, 10 km ahead of Kaman Post, the last military outpost on the Indian side of the (loc), burying 60 Border Road Organisation (BRO) labourers alive.

The shock wave sheared off entire hillsides, sending motorcar-sized boulders and rubble crashing onto the narrow winding roads, snapping the regions already perilous communication link with the rest of the Valley. Mobile phone towers and electricity were knocked out. The magnitude of the damage across the Valley was so enormous that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited Kashmir on October 11 to review the disaster, called upon the "resilience of nation" to tide over it. It will not be easy. Dozens of villages have vanished and the initial toll of over 1,000 is expected to rise even as over 4,000 people have been admitted with injuries to various hospitals across Kashmir. State officials say over 32,000 houses have been damaged and nearly half the number of official buildings, including schools and offices, have been levelled with ground.

Tens of villages still remained disconnected even though the army has carried out hundreds of helicopter sorties to bring victims to safety and injured to the camps and hospitals. Villages like Sultan Dhaki, Kamal Kote and vast parts of the Tangdhar area were out of bounds even on the fourth day after the disaster, while Aman Setu, which connects Uri with Muzaffarabad, has been damaged, making it unlikely for passengers from Srinagar and Muzaffarabad to cross the bridge on October 20, the next designated date for the fortnightly bus service.

Even as state authorities in Srinagar, the summer capital, maintained that the rescue and relief operations started immediately after the quake, there was little to substantiate this claim. The state Government is not technically prepared for disaster management-the closest it has got to is setting up a Department of Flood Control. Much-needed medical aid and tents were yet to reach the quake victims, while private relief efforts, which by and large took off only three days after the tragedy, have been too little and very slow to come by.

DREAM SHATTERS: A man walks past his damaged house at Kamal Kote near Uri

Kashmir's Divisional Commissioner B.B. Vyas repeatedly blamed inclement weather for hampering rescue and relief works but that is bitter succour for quake survivors in Uri who were sleeping in the open, under the rain, even after three days of the tragedy. Tents, quilts and blankets were distributed mostly in the focus of TV cameras. On the second day, the Centre sanctioned Rs 100 crore. On the third day, it sanctioned another Rs 500 crore. But often the same people kept drawing relief repeatedly while the seriously affected, living beyond the mountains and away from the spotlight of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, did not get even a bottle of drinking water, let alone tents, kerosene or medicines reaching there.

The public reaction was instant and enraged. There were multiple roadblocks by angry survivors and protests for better relief. Residents of Mohura village blocked the roads for several hours demanding the removal and burial of 17 bodies that lay near the Kaman Post. Another village near the loc, Kamal Kote, saw 40 of its 2,000 inhabitants dead. Yet, the village was treated as if it were invisible. Not a single aid worker was able to reach there even at the end of the third day. The extent of the devastation was so huge that hardly any house in the affected areas is safe enough to live in again. Politicians and government officials, both from Srinagar and Delhi, flew in and out of Uri but few civilian administration sorties were used to bring in tents, most needed as it keeps raining during the nights. "They could have utilised those flights to send in aid," sneered JKLF chief Yasin Malik, leading a relief convoy in Uri.

Uri, no doubt, is a very difficult mountainous and treacherous terrain. The army, usually the best bet in administering rescue and relief operations, was initially largely focused on its own rescue operations and repairing its shattered infrastructure, mainly along the loc. "Most of the frontline army posts along the loc suffered heavy damage. In the Uri Brigade soldiers had some reaction time to the quake but the ones manning the forward posts from inside semi-concrete bunkers had none at all," said an officer in the 12 Brigade Sector at Uri. But finding state relief lax, the army filled the breach-reaching into its own winter stocks of food, tents and blankets and deploying a dozen helicopters to administer relief and evacuate casualties. Six Cheetah helicopters deployed at Uri flew 50 sorties a day, bringing in two injured persons from each of the remote villages in each flight and flying back with 100 kg of food and supplies.

But there is no excuse for the state and Central administration ignoring vast swathes of areas outside the Line of Media Attention. Like Shalkote in Rafiabad belt of Baramulla district, which is still to figure on the reported trail of devastation even though in this village of 20 homes almost nothing has survived. "The magnitude of devastation in this village is no less than that in Uri. The only difference is that this place is comparably smaller than Uri and, of course, has yet to come on the radar," said Waseem Yousuf, Kashmir coordinator of the international NGO, Save the Children UK.

He should know. Yousuf was the first aid worker the villagers of devastated Shalkote saw-that too on the fourth day. As his team entered Shalkote late on Wednesday afternoon, villagers who were camping out in the open ever since the quake struck immediately besieged them, requesting relief. "We have spent three nights in the open amid rains and low temperatures. Winter is already approaching, where will we go?" asked Abdul Samad, a retired government employee who lost his house and entire livestock. "Even on the fourth day, nobody from state authorities, except these few volunteers, has come here. This is a plain area, not hilly and difficult like Uri. I can only imagine what the condition of people in Uri and Tangdhar will be," he added.

HOMELESS: Their houses flattened, many are spending nights in the open

Families in this village have gathered in fields and pooled whatever they could scrape together. They dismiss Government claims of rescue and relief with contempt. "What relief? Do our administration and politicians know what has happened to this village," asked a young villager, Khurshid Ahmed. Pointing towards a child eating some rice, Ahmed says, "At the best this is what we can afford right now. Dusty rice salvaged from collapsed stores. We completed our harvest very recently but it is all buried."

Frontier districts of Baramulla and Kupwara have been the worst hit. As one travels through interior villages in Baramulla district, gaping cracks in many houses serve as evidence to the horror people have undergone. With loss of life and property, farmers in the apple towns of Sopore, Baramulla and Kupwara have also suffered damage to their orchards. The devastating earthquake not only flattened homes and killed hundreds but has also put the livelihood of thousands of fruit growers in jeopardy. "I was busy guiding labourers in my apple orchard (in Baramulla town) when the earthquake struck. Suddenly, the apples started dropping from trees," says G.R. Bhat, president of Jammu and Kashmir Fruit Growers and Traders Association. Bhat puts the loss to the apple produce at about 25 per cent. The worst hit northern Kashmir districts of Baramulla and Kupwara are also the largest apple producing areas in the country. About 60 per cent of Kashmiri apple is produced in Sopore and its suburbs alone.

With 10 per cent contribution to the state domestic product, apple continues to be the mainstay of Kashmir's economy with a revenue of Rs 1,400 crore a year. The annual production of the world famous variety of the fruit in the state has reached 1.2 million tonnes and employs nearly six lakh Kashmiris. "The earthquake has broken our back," says Mohammad Shaban in Sopore. Not just that. It has wiped out lives and proved yet again the deep rot in the state's administration, which seems to persist whichever party is in power.

The way ahead is tough. Winter is almost upon Kashmir and shelter is almost non-existent. "We have already started planning rebuilding houses. Construction and structural engineers from Delhi will be here soon to help us," says Vijay Bakaya, Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary. It cannot be a moment too soon.


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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
OCTOBER 24, 2005

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