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After the deluge, what?

One year since the State witnessed floods that devastated its economy, people are yet to see any substantial assistance from the Centre.

September 04, 2015 12:16 am | Updated March 28, 2016 03:11 pm IST

Some residents in Srinagar affected by the floods last year. File photo

Some residents in Srinagar affected by the floods last year. File photo

About a year back, I was driving back to Srinagar from Baramulla in North Kashmir. It had been raining for a few days and reports of flooding from South Kashmir were trickling in. As my car entered Bemina, a sprawling residential colony in Srinagar, water was gushing across the highway and my car barely managed to escape the chaos that was beginning to build up in the area. Little did I imagine then that we were in the middle of a historic flooding, the likes of which no Kashmiri had ever witnessed. The following day, major parts of Kashmir lost road and communications networks and nobody knew what was going on.

Salman Anees Soz

Hopes crushed In walked the Prime Minister, one with a reputation for decisiveness and the hopes soared in the hearts of millions of affected citizens. A historic inflexion point in Kashmir’s tortured history was tantalisingly within reach. Sadly, hopes evaporated faster than the flood waters. An opportunity to reach out to the Kashmiris was lost. We are left to recount what might have been.

It was clear from the beginning that the State Government had neither the technical expertise nor the financial resources to launch a credible recovery programme. In this context, the Prime Minister’s visit during the floods was reassuring. He tweeted that it was a “national disaster” and that he wanted to assure people of J&K that it was a disaster not just for them but for the “entire nation”. He followed this visit with another one in October to celebrate Diwali. The message was one of compassion and reassurance. Here was a seemingly strong and decisive PM who appeared to have struck the right notes in a region that was traditionally hostile to him and his party. Yes, those were hopeful days and despite all the devastation around them, Kashmiris were confident that help was on the way.

How much financial assistance did J&K require? Quite a lot, it turns out. The State Government estimated losses at Rs.44,000 crores ($7 billion; almost 50 per cent of J&K’s GDP). Business associations came up with loss estimates of Rs.100,000 crores or more. Some observers received these estimates with scepticism. Even so, the disaster was far too big for even the richest States in the country to deal with on their own. In an article I wrote after the flooding, I compared losses in J&K with those in Uttarakhand during the 2013 floods. Suffice it to say, Uttarakhand floods were much smaller in scale. Even so, the Uttarakhand government sought central assistance of about Rs.12,000 crores; the UPA government provided about Rs.8,000 crores and was considering the remainder when the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign kicked in. In J&K’s case, the assistance required was clearly far greater.

Even after a year, nothing even remotely close to these figures has materialised. Sadly, the Central government has still not formally confirmed the quantum of losses suffered in last year’s flooding. Disaster management experts, working with government agencies, prepare these types of loss estimates in a matter of weeks, as was done in Uttarakhand. However, despite several visits by Mr. Modi, his Ministers and bureaucrats, we still do not have a confirmed estimate of losses against which a Central Government financial package can be provided. Instead, Mr. Modi’s government has focused on high-profile visits and announced assistance in dribs and drabs. These announcements add up to what the former Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, called a “State awash with empty words”.

Assistance not forthcoming Writing in June, Mr. Abdullah dissected the financial assistance provided to J&K so far. Of the total assistance announced so far, less than Rs.1500 crores has been meaningful. This is unless you consider Rs.500 crore towards the rescue effort of the India Air Force or Rs.850 crores to clear past dues of a bankrupt State as meaningful flood assistance.

News reports of a “substantial” flood relief package kept circulating. The package never came. Kashmir lost a full working season, people moved on and hope gave way to a dour realism.

Many experts are of the view that economies can experience a boost in the aftermath of a disaster. This is because of a pent-up demand for reconstruction of physical assets and associated job creation. Unfortunately, this is not automatic. To rebuild and revitalise an economy, one needs financial resources. Speaking of which, India was generous in supporting Nepal when a destructive earthquake hit that country. In addition to other support, the Government of India announced a $1 billion package to support Nepal’s recovery. I hope Nepal’s economy receives a boost with such support. It raises a question, however. Is J&K’s pain any less, its economic needs less genuine?

After one year, it is clear that PM Modi and his government have utterly failed to deliver on promises made to the people of J&K. In doing so, the Prime Minister has lost a terrific opportunity to reach out to the people of Kashmir and set a new course, one of building trust and mutual respect. It is not just a loss for the people of Kashmir, it is the nation’s loss. After all, these are the Prime Minister’s words.

( The author, formerly with the World Bank, is a spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. Views expressed are personal .)

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