Kashmir floods: Sailing to safety on ‘Jugaad’s Ark’

  • Hilal Mir, Hindustan Times, Srinagar
  • Updated: Sep 12, 2014 18:44 IST

On Sunday morning, a TV news channel flashed images of a crèche being engulfed by the swirling waters of the Jhelum. Baby swings and toys floated in the muddy water alongside sofas and other household materials in the posh Rajbagh area of Srinagar.

Anxiety immediately overcame me as I realised the place shown in those images was only 4-5 km away from Natipora, where my wife and our 14-month-old son were trapped on the first floor of my in-laws’ house.

I decide to fly to Srinagar, although I wasn’t sure how I could help except turning up at my brother’s apartment in Sanat Nagar, one of the few areas that escaped the flooding and which was the closest I could get to my besieged family.

As the plane landed, I could see the devastation. A vast swathe of land in the suburbs of Srinagar was submerged. If it were not for the tall poplar trees sticking out of the water, I would have mistaken it for a small lake. The airport cabbies were unexpectedly generous and they drove me to my brother’s place for half the normal fare. This was a glimpse of the camaraderie I was going to witness at every step.

About 3pm on Monday, I hitched a ride to the Nowgam intersection from where my in-laws’ house was about one-and-half km. The road was six feet under water; the house could be accessed only by boat. From here, small groups of volunteers were using contraptions of every sort to ferry people: plywood sheets tied to tyre tubes; empty plastic cans and water bottles wrapped with fishing net and tied to wooden planks; three sleeping mattresses tied with plastic rope. Some were riding solo in a corrugated iron sheet shaped into a boat or a half-cut water tank. These seemingly unreliable jugaads have saved hundreds.

None of the volunteers consented to go to my in-laws’, saying the water level near my wife’s place was too high. My wife’s three uncles had been vainly trying as well since morning. The only official who had visited this point was an officer at the local police station. He had been nearly lynched by the people for not doing anything.

Then we were told that National Disaster Relief Force’s boats were operating from another point, exactly outside the Met officein a place called Barzulla. I and my wife’s three uncles drove to this point in a car. It was 5pm. The approaching dark accentuated the misery writ on the faces of the rescued people who were being ferried in boats--- old women barely able to walk, children from a madrasa crying and chanting Allah-u-Akbar.

A woman grew hysterical, shouting at the NDRF men that a boat takes two to three hours to make a round trip. At this pace, they will never get to her family in Padshahi Bagh, the worst hit area, barely a kilometre away. She yelled even more loudly when she was shown a few boats whose motorised propellers were not working. Another man refused to get down from a boat, insisting that his children and ailing parents are trapped in the second story of the home. He was promptly removed. A total of 20 boats had been pressed into service, including the one whose motors were bust. The crowd told me that no boat has made more than one trip, each bringing not more than seven or eight people. This disembarkation point is close to a huge CRPF camp and the ‘samadhis’ of Dogra Maharajas. Barring NDRF men, no security personnel were involved in the rescue operation at this spot.

I despaired at the sluggish pace of the operation. The urge to flash my media credentials and board one of these boats nearly overcame me at one point. I watched silently, standing in knee deep water, shivering. The din of the crowd frequently got drowned in the sound of helicopters that were dropping food packets in rural areas and possibly ferrying people to safety.

The priority of the rescue teams was the people at greater risk in the interiors of the nearby areas. My in-laws’ sturdy, three storied brick-and-concrete house was on the roadside. Therefore, they were not a priority. At about 6pm, the waiting crowd thinned. Two boats unloaded another lot of relieved survivors. The rescue timing was drawing to a close.

My wife’s youngest uncle and a man whose entire family was stranded in one of the danger zones requested the NDRF men if they could make a trip to Natipora, given that finding my in laws’ house in dark would not be a problem. They agreed.

Boats kept arriving. I flashed my smartphone’s ‘powerful’ flashlight at every arrival. It was 8.24pm and no sight of the boat I wanted to see. The NDRF men told me all boats but two had arrived and the rescue operation was being called off. A couple of minutes later, my wife’s uncle returned delivering the good news that my wife and son were safe at her aunt’s house untouched by the flood. But who rescued them?

On a prayer and a 'jugaad's ark'

It turned out that my two brothers-in-law had been requesting every passing boat to at least take my wife and son to safety. But, as I said earlier, people stranded on upper stories of their houses were not a priority. The two then took to jugaad.

They rolled up sheets of plastic foam into bundles and tied them up with ropes. Three such bundles were fastened with ropes to four sheets of foam. The entire thing was wrapped with a waterproof camping tent. To test whether the contraption was fit for a 2-km ride with five people on board, my brothers-in-law first rode it to the next door neighbour’s sprawling premises. Once the reliability of the contraption was established, the rescue act began. Soon, my wife, son and my sister-in-law were sailing to safety.

I drove to my wife’s aunt’s home, hugged my son and took a selfie.

Inspired by the success of the ‘foam catamaran’, many in the neighbourhood made their own versions of it and sailed to safety, while others put them to other uses, like transporting eatables and water.

But securing the safety of my wife and son did not end my worries. My parents, an 80-year-old aunt who had suffered a head injury last week, my younger brother, my sister, brother-in-law and their two daughters, aged eight and four, were still stranded at our home in Bemina.

We were under the impression that our locality had been spared the devastation, but on Tuesday evening a friend informed us that about three feet of the ground floor of our house in Bemina was under water.

My brother asked me, a late riser, to get up by 6am so that we can be the first to get onto an army rescue boat. Since the communication systems were not working, we had no idea of how our parents were doing.

It was on Wednesday my brother and I drove in his car to the nearest rescue point at Tengpora, two-and-half km from our home. An army officer was issuing and receiving directions on a wireless set. We were told seven boats that could ferry 10-15 people each had left half an hour ago.

These boats were meant for evacuation of a population of at least 30,000 people in Tengpora, parts of Bemina and Batamaloo. Even this seemingly insignificant effort was delayed by people who competed among themselves to navigate the boats to their homes or localities first. Propeller motors of four other boats were not working.

Three soldiers were recording everything with camcorders, especially the sailing of the boats. Half a dozen army trucks ferried people to this point from nearby Hyderpora as the road was knee deep in floodwaters. The army had also set up a tent where medicines were being dispensed and the sick examined.

In a natural disaster, the army’s role promptly becomes sacrosanct. In case of Kashmir, however, it also becomes a tool to whip up nationalistic passions and flay ‘separatists’. But if one were to drop a microphone from a chopper and ask the stranded people in various areas about the reality of the rescue operations by various agencies, including the army, their responses would make the questions like “where are the separatists now” appear very vulgar. That is probably why a lesser known TV channel's reporter, who had flown from Delhi, and his Kashmiri cameraman (name withheld on request) were thrashed by a crowd at Sanat Nagar for what they termed as biased reportage.

As if by instinct, people had realised that nothing was going to be achieved by the rescue effort as it stood on the ground. People of means had managed to procure inflatable boats. The less privileged were sailing in the jugaads and struggling hard in deep waters. My brother and I estimated that we could get within 70 metres of our house via an embankment of a flood channel. It was a two kilometre walk.

The embankment at first seemed like an elongated open air gaushala. Scores of cows and sheep had been moved to the banks by their owners when the water started rising. Shivering dogs which had managed to swim up to the banks were soaking up the sun. (About 100,000 stray dogs in Srinagar city are considered a menace. Thousands of cattle and canines are feared dead and their carcasses a major health threat once the water recedes.)

Water, water everywhere

This embankment became the only connecting route between people who were safe and scores of areas in old Srinagar and its suburbs. Families had erected makeshift tents and volunteers were distributing food items and water.

A lanky teenager, Zubair, along with a dozen other people, was evacuated by a group of volunteers from a mosque where they had been stranded since Sunday night in Tengpora. According to Zubair, the water rose abruptly and they could not move out in time. They hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since then. My brother’s childhood friend, a stout six-and-a half-foot hunk, cried like a baby. His two kids were stranded at their grandparents’ home in the old city.

I didn’t see any civilian or army official along this route. After covering the distance, we reached the Bemina intersection on the arterial Jammu-Baramulla-LoC highway. From this intersection, we waded in knee deep water and reached outside the narrow lane to our home. The lane is submerged under six feet of water and no passing civilian boat consented to take us there. Helicopters are flying every ten minute or so. One of them drops a few packets at a distance and I laugh. In the afternoon, we return dejected.

At Tengpora, former Asian Age reporter Jehangir Ali showed me a letter hastily dropped at his home by Mail Today’s Kashmir correspondent and my friend Naseer Ganai. The letter said that Naseer had taken his ailing father to a relative’s house in Chadoora once he sensed water would soon inundate his home. He was concerned about the whereabouts of a few other family members. Jehangir told me that Naseer had left crying.

There are a plethora of images and stories in a land rendered boringly uniform by flood waters: An angelic infant being pushed by its father to safety in a baby swimming pool; a volunteer feeding biscuits to a dog; a man spreading documents on the bonnet of his car to dry. He tells me that he had abandoned the car on the highway when the water rose dangerously.

My wife’s cousin tells me that a puppy held onto to the branch of a creeper in their garden for nearly three hours with its teeth and paws. When the water receded a bit, it swam a distance and reunited with the waiting mom. At Tengpora point, a man shouts: “Bastards, they locked me up for a night saying I was a thief. I had gone to rescue people. Bastards”.

One of the many surprises thrown up by the flood is the threat of thieves. Many people are refusing to abandon submerged houses fearing robberies. My wife’s grandfather had stubbornly refused to leave the house citing the same reason. You can’t fault people for such fears because there is no one to reassure them, not even the huge army of volunteers visiting all areas, bringing along eatables, medicines, milk, water and other necessities.

My version of the flood story is limited because I could visit only a small area. Since I had no contact with the outside world, I didn’t know what was happening in other flooded areas of the valley. During my own efforts to reach out to my kin, I spotted only three politicians: BJP’s Hina Bhat who was overseeing the evacuation of her father and former MLA Mohammad Shafi Bhat. People’s Conference chief Sajjad Lone, whose home is close to one of the biggest relief camps in Sanat Nagar. He had opened a free medicine service and his party men were carrying out relief work, I was told. The only Hurriyat leader, Nayeem Khan, was driving around in a Scorpio till late Tuesday night, visiting a few relief camps and affected areas.

Thousands of youth are engaged in relief measures in a disorganised manner, which wastes much of the effort. A Gurdwara in Baghat area of the city, where hundreds of rescued Sikhs are putting up, has shown the way. Dozens of community kitchens set up by Muslims often refer to the impeccably smooth relief operations of the Gurdwara as an example of how voluntary services need to be conducted.

It is time for soul searching too. The old city is built on the banks of the Jhelum and many of its satellites in the suburbs are built very close to its tributaries, flood channels and wetlands. Most housing colonies are built on paddy land, low-lying filled-up marshes and wetlands. The unregulated housing in these areas over the past five decades makes the city vulnerable to floods. The survivors were not only cussing at their own stupidity but also cursing the successive governments for allowing land sharks to shape up a city.

Everywhere I went people complained about the non-existent flood control measures. The flood vindicates them. The elderly spoke of the times when after heavy rains the flood control department officials would erect tents in high-risk areas. The tents would be equipped with wireless sets and public address systems. This time, they said, when the met office was preparing the people for the deluge, the administration was absent on the ground.

Final rescue

Unconfirmed reports of houses falling and stranded people complaining of drinking water shortage increased our worries. On Thursday, I hitched a ride to Tengpora and went straight to the point where rescue boats launch their sorties.

A few soldiers watched on as two men refused to get down from the boat. Each wanted the rescuers to pick up his kin first. A feisty Sikh soldier asked his comrades to let the two fight and return to the army trucks standing nearby. I asked the soldier how many boats were out there for evacuating the people. He said 10. I swallowed up anger. Instead of taking the embankment route, this time I decided to walk the submerged road. After 20 minutes of wading through groin-deep muddy waters, I reached my locality’s service lane, in Bemina, and waited for some benevolent owner of a boat to pass by and help me and my brother to reach home.

Luckily, one of our neighbours, a mid-level bureaucrat, had paid a shikara man Rs 15,000 to ferry his mother, a mentally-challenged brother and some other family members to the main road. The shikara had attempted to evacuate them yesterday too but the old woman had refused to leave the house. On Thursday, she couldn’t say no.

Once the family was evacuated, we requested the shikara owner if he could undertake one more trip. He agreed. Finally, we reached home, relieved to find that water supply was on and my sister’s family had managed to leave in the same boat yesterday. We took the aunt along as she needed frequent dressings.

My younger brother and parents said they will wait it out for a couple of days more, hoping the water will recede fast. We delivered food, milk powder, medicines and juices.

Most people were sailing in the same boat, making treacherous trips to get as close as they could to their kin and, if possible, evacuate them to safe places. They had no way of knowing about the situation in other areas.

If only the government had made some arrangement to update people about the situation in various areas, much of the chaos could be avoided. Phones had started working by Thursday morning. But there was no electricity in the flooded areas and the batteries were dead. People with pre-paid SIMs had exhausted their minutes. Radio and TV networks were not working.

Small gatherings, analysing the floods, often repeated, and aptly so, a Kashmir saying which sums up the situation: yupis kya kari shup, will a shield stop a flood?

Read: Stuck on rooftops for days, yet reluctant to leave
J-K is the only flood-prone state without a flood warning system

(Hilal Mir is a Delhi-based journalist with Hindustan Times)

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