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

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

In the Valley, people are waiting for tents and blankets that do not arrive. If the Government does not act fast, Kashmiris may have to face a second catastrophe with the onset of rain and snow.
REMAINS OF THE DAY: A woman retrieves her belongings from the rubble in Kamal Kote village in Uri

On most days it could have been the most rapturous of sights. The white, snow-clad peaks of the Pir Panjal can inspire poetry. But not this time. Just four days after the deathquake killed over 1,400 people in Kashmir and injured over 4,500, thousands huddled in the open ground near their destroyed homes, looked up at the white crowned peaks and shivered. "Snowfall at this time of the year is unusual, but then these days nature seems to be against us,'' reasons Ejaz Hussain, a wizened, grizzle-bearded villager carrying a sack of grain covered by a plastic sheet, slowly walking up the broken mountain path.

First it was the killer quake. Then it was the rain that came down hard and fast, drenching thousands of villagers who only hours ago had pulled bodies out of heaps of rubble which were homes. It grounded the Cheetah helicopters which buzzed in and out of Uri like dragonflies, brought the army's relief drive to a grinding halt and turned narrow paths like the only access to Hussain's village, Jhabragaon, high up in the hills of Uri district, into slippery pathways covered with soft mud that squished under one's feet and caused vehicles to slide on the rough mountain roads.

SLOW AID: A survivor cradles her child in the makeshift army hospital in Uri

Now the worst is round the corner. November marks the onset of winter which sees three months of non-stop snowfall. Like the one in February this year which cut off the Valley from the rest of the world-the "white tsunami", as Indian Air Force Chief Air Marshal S.P. Tyagi called it-forcing villagers and soldiers alike to stock up nearly six months of winter rations. Most of these rations are now gone, buried under collapsed dwellings. There are no warm houses to go back to. Most of the people found refuge in makeshift shelters of tin and tarpaulin while a handful got access to army issue olive green canvas tents. "I wish they taught me how to make a proper tent,'' says Manzoor Ahmed of Kamal Kote village, wistfully eyeing his temporary shelter, an army issue tent hastily pulled over an aluminium pole. But the canvas tent, which he fought so hard for and got from a relief convoy and which he now shares with two other families, will be pretty much useless against heavy snow. Others were not so lucky.

"We have spent three nights in the open in rains and low temperatures. Winter is already approaching. Where will we go?" asks Abdul Samad of Uri, a retired government employee who lost his house and entire livestock. As survivors intensified their clamour for relief, mainly tents, blankets and warm clothing, six children died due to exposure in the quake-affected regions. Already it is snowing in the worst-hit Tangdhar sector and temperatures are falling roughly by a degree every day.

It is a looming threat the army, which has practically emerged as the sole relief provider in the region, is quick to acknowledge. "The priority in the next two months is to provide the people with some form of shelter and protection against the cold,'' says Brigadier D.S. Hooda, commander of the Uri-based unit that is coordinating most of the aid requirements in the region. While the army has dug into its winter reserves to issue over 1,000 tents in Uri, these could soon prove inadequate.

Aid workers estimate that 10,000-20,000 tents are required in the three worst-affected regions of Uri, Baramulla and Kupwara where an estimated one lakh people are still homeless. Barely a fraction of these has been supplied yet. Four days after the quake, which Jammu and Kashmir Finance Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beg conservatively estimates as having caused damage worth Rs 1,000 crore, relief has only begun trickling in. But tents, warm clothing like jackets and sweaters, food and water are all in short supply.

FOOD: Drinking water, ready-to-eat food, dry rations like rice and pulses and cooking oil for one lakh people.

SHELTER: With most of the houses destroyed, they require at least 20,000 tents now and permanent, quake-proof housing soon.

CLOTHING: At least 50,000 jackets and sweaters of various sizes are needed, especially for children. But even blankets are not coming in.

INFRASTRUCTURE: Roads have to be cleared on a war footing to speed aid delivery.

Aid worth over Rs 600 crore has already been promised, which includes Rs 500 crore by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "It is not enough to say you have money, the whole operation is a huge logistics exercise,'' says Wasim Yusuf Bhatt, project officer, Save the Children. A simple example: every truck of relief material despatched from Srinagar needs at least eight volunteers to ensure that the aid is distributed among the people.

Making matters difficult for any prospective relief operations is the rugged mountain terrain. While assistance in the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake could be speedily despatched with giant il-76s disgorging up to 40 tonnes of relief supplies at the Bhuj airport, the situation in Kashmir is different. Most of the houses in villages like Kamal Kote and Sultandaki are scattered along mountainsides and accessible only by narrow mule tracks.

Even if the IL-76s fly emergency aid to the nearest airport, Srinagar, they have to discharge it onto smaller mi-17 choppers which will then ferry it to a helipad in Uri from where it is transferred onto the still smaller Cheetah helicopters to supply it to villages. The quantity of aid diminishes over each step of the transfer. The alternative, a road trip from Srinagar, is a 100 km drive to Uri and Kupwara lasting over three hours. Access to most of the areas near the loc is only through narrow mountain roads where vehicles pass within paint-grazing distance. These roads were the first to be blocked by landslides, cutting off large parts of Uri, Baramulla and Kupwara. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway, cut off by landslide, will take a week to be fully restored.

INTERIM RELIEF: Manmohan Singh has promised an initial aid of Rs 500 crore

In the absence of a centrally co-ordinated relief effort, apart from that mounted by the army, aid arrived in fits and starts, without any proper need-based evaluation. Often villagers along the roads helped themselves to relief supplies. In other cases, relief workers simply dumped food packets on roadsides, leaving locals to forage like animals, and drove away.

"What we are seeing are unhappy trends of certain communities providing only for their own. I really wish they could hand over relief work to a centralised agency,'' says Mohammad Hussain, retired headmaster of the secondary high school in Kamal Kote.

Architects have a saying, "Earthquakes don't kill people, poorly designed and constructed buildings do." The majority of the dead in Kashmir were buried under poorly designed homes of two kinds-old houses made of rubble, loose stones and mud mortar and crowned by a corrugated tin shed and new dwellings made of concrete slabs. The walls in these constructions, which were not anchored together, refused to sway as one unit and consequently, collapsed on the occupants. The rubble now has to be cleared and this includes demolishing the cracked structures, which is a mammoth exercise, and providing alternative, lightweight, quake-proof housing on the lines of those developed in the Tehri-Garhwal region in the past decade. But permanent housing isn't even on the horizon as over one lakh quake-hit people in Kashmir gear up for their longest, coldest winter yet.

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

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