When Omar Abdullah, the scion of one of the state's most prominent political families, the Abdullahs became the 11th and the youngest chief minister hopes were high.
The junior Abdullah however faced two consecutive summers of street agitation which left scores of youth dead. In the ultimate year of his six year regime, the Abdullah government was faced with a calamity the state hadn’t seen in six decades.
As water leaves behind the trail of destruction and devastation, Abdullah says the upcoming elections are not his concern anymore, having a dry and normal Srinagar is.
Excerpts from an interview.
Q:People are angry. Are you trying to restore their faith?
A: Fair enough. The fact that most areas in Srinag are flooded and the quantum of water in the city has not receded to the desired levels justifies the anger. I am trying very hard to steer the state out of this crisis. My focus is not a PR exercise.
Q:When will we have a dry city?
A:I don’t have an answer for that. Nobody will be able to give you an answer. I don’t have a deadline for you, though I wish I did. Some areas are very badly affected; these are unfortunately traditionally flood prone areas. The biggest difference has been made by the cuts we have made in the river embankments that we have made that has helped the water to flow out. Just pumps alone would have not been able to help. I wish there were easy solutions to the problems but there aren’t , we are trying to get the water out.
Q:But the men and machinery doesn’t seem to be visible…Most of the people are not even coming out of their homes.
A:Those employees that are required on the ground are largely there. Some are themselves inundated which is no excuse . Secretariat employees, even they have been asked to report to their head offices in various districts. There is a fairly reasonably functional government. The state stretches beyond Srinagar. The problem area is in Srinagar but rest of the area also require to be fed, goverened.
Q:The areas remaining inundated is giving rise to lot of rumours about number of casualities etc?
A:If there were causalities, the relatives would have come to us. The problem is there is no communication. Unlike in Ladakh where after the flashflood scores of people went missing, there are no such reports here. The bodies we have found have already been accounted for and till date 76 people have died.
Q:Why was the government missing initially for four five days?
A: Not four five days, first 24 to 48 hours were most difficult. Initially everyone was swept away, nobody denies the fact that initial response took a while to get going. First because of the magnitude of the problem and than the breakdown of communication. We needed to ramp up our capacity by flying in equipment, the army stores were away, CRPF camps were swept away, my police was establishment was totally cut out.
Q:Wasn’t any disaster mangement system in place?
We have been dealing with floods and we have been dealing with them reasonably well. Till the bund breached and water came out in the city the extend of problem multiplied and the system sort of fell apart.
Q: About 1100 crores of disaster management funds available to the state were never utilized.
Money can only be used for the disaster. We can spend it only after the disaster. We had state disaster management forces available to us who worked in the initial hours of the calamity.
Q :Was there a time when you went helpless?
A: I didn’t feel helpless but there were times when I felt frustrated that we weren’t able to respond the way we wanted to because of the constraints the situation forced on us. For the first 24 hours, this (Hari Nawas, state guest house ) was our Island. We were seven of us- few of my cabinet colleagues, DG Police, chief secretary , my principal secretary and the core commander with one of his junior officer. ‘We were the one who did the initial disaster response. Next day army installed a satellite phone which we are still using.
Q: People are accusing rescue was selective, locals were not a priority.
A:Army and NDRF have pulled out 75,000 people by boat, they have kept count, while others haven’t so the number is much higher. All these people could have not been tourists and non locals and VIPs. It was primarily how the coverage was done, most of the cameras were in the airport areas so they saw tourists and non local labourers being rescued.
Q: But 90% of the rescue work was done by locals.
A: That is fair enough. In the 2005 earthquake, snow Tsunami, in cloud burst in Ladakh people came forward. Srinagar was no different. I am not absolving government of its responsibility, primary responsibility is of the government; but if locals can get a boat and rescue people, what is the harm in that. It cannot be failure on part of the government.
Q: Do we have any estimates of the loss due to floods.
A: Not at the moment, we are have formed committees to make assessments.
There has been huge loss to crops, agriculture horticulture. A pack of apples which fetches Rs 500 is being sold for Rs 50. Fruits growers said their loss was Rs 4000 crores, the Kashmir business alliance says there loss was Rs 10000- 15000 crores but these figures need to be concretatised. Centre has promised help. Lets see what they do.
Q: What hereafter?
A. Right now just getting the water out. Its unfortunate that the flood channels have been inhabited and they will remain like that. We need to see why did old town survive and your uptown and new town get inundated. The earlier system of natural channels saved old city, we need to do the same in new city as well. We need to assist the process of drainage, there is no natural drainage.
No house in the areas, water was not less than in one and a half storeys so if you had a single storey house you would have been in problem.
Lot of relief has come, from various state governments and lot of individuals.
Q: What about elections? Will they be held on time or are they being deferred?
A:Honestly, I couldn’t care less. At this point and time, am so far removed from any thought of elections. I have such little interest in elections for so many reasons, the first is with people in so much distress how can you think of election. Two almost all the good work we have done in five and half years infrastructure wise ``us pe pani pergaya ‘’ --- you macadamize roads the roads are mud, you build bridges today the bridges are no where, you build building, they are inundated. What will you talk about now.
Q: How long do you think will Kashmir take to return back to normalcy.
A: Surprisingly wherever the water is receding, people are out to rebuild their lives. Its amazing how Anantnag, a few days after it dried, is trying to gather pieces. The markets are also opening. With the kind of disaster we faced, the good news is that the death toll is not very high. There have been 76 deaths in the valley so far. If we can keep it at that I will be the happiest person and it will mean something has gone right somewhere.