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J-K: The safety valves that never opened

As the flood waters recede slowly from parts of Srinagar city, there are gaping holes in the line of action adopted by the state administration to prevent the floods, fuelling fears that political considerations superceded rational action in dealing with the situation.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2014 23:35 IST
Peerzada Ashiq

As the flood waters recede slowly from parts of Srinagar city, there are gaping holes in the line of action adopted by the state administration to prevent the floods, fuelling fears that political considerations superceded rational action in dealing with the situation. Unlike the floods of 1992, when the discharge of the river Jhelum in the city was 65,000 cusec — at least 25,000 cusec less than this year — the government took several days to decide whether Kandizaal, an embankment allowed to ease the discharge before it enters the city, should be opened. Reliable sources claim that local politicians and the administration remained at loggerheads, resulting in indecisiveness and delay.

The opening of Kandizaal, a traditional practice, would have inundated areas such as Lasjan and Padshahi Bagh first. These are low-lying areas that have dealt with floods in the past. Doing this would have lowered the level of the river. These areas have seen unprecedented constructions since 1992 but are still less populated than other parts of Srinagar.

Despite the Jhelum flowing at an unprecedented level of 34 feet — 10 feet above the danger mark of 24 feet — at south Kashmir’s Sangam gauge centre for two days, no formal statistics on the flooding of areas and the likely inundation in terms of floors of houses were issued by the irrigation and flood control department. This, despite the fact that the department registered a record 286 mm rainfall in south Kashmir’s Anantnag in seven hours on September 4.

Similarly, another safety valve, the gates of the Dal lake remained closed until September 7. This, despite the fact that the water level was seven feet above the danger mark of 18 feet in the city. “In the past, as the water level touched 24-25 feet, the gates of the Dal lake were opened to relieve the Jhelum river and, in the process, allow the slow inundation of areas of the lake spread over 11 sq km,” a senior official with the department said, on condition of anonymity. The population of the lake remains a vote bank of a “particular party” and that stopped the administration from opening the lake’s flood gates, he said. Sources in the flood and irrigation department also said the river was impregnated with the highest-ever discharge of more than 80,000 cusec, resulting in a spill over and the blasting of embankments at weak points. A survey conducted by department officials saw breaches as wide as 40-50 feet in posh Rajbagh. These major breaches have resulted in the continuous marooning of areas from Rajbagh to Tulsi Bagh, despite the receding water levels. The government’s unpreparedness is also under the scanner as the fate of a multi-crore project on desilting the entire basin, constructing proper embankments and dealing with floods in the Valley in the next five years, remains undecided. The project was submitted to the central government by Taj Mohiuddin, former irrigation and flood control minister with Omar Abdullah in 2009-2010. Despite the 13th Finance Commission approving ` 950 crore for disaster management, no executive body was constituted under the State Disaster Response Force, resulting in a failure to procure staff and rescue material such as boats.

Now, as the flood waters are turning foetid, the state government has decided to breach the Jhelum banks at strategic points to let the water seep back into the river. With over 1.5 lakh people still stranded in partly submerged homes in Srinagar, dewatering the city remains a priority.

With inputs from Toufiq Rashid