After the “flood-of-the-century” the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India is preparing for a long treacherous difficult winters. The struggle has just started. According to the state government estimates reported in local dailies 95000 houses are affected from flash floods with 65000 being rendered unliveable.
The situation that resulted due to flash floods on September 6 was long in the making. Floods bring destruction but what made the situation in J&K severe was years of mismanagement of land resources, unplanned urbanisation and population explosion. Add to this, Climate Change and the resultant alteration in the pattern of rainfall, has created a situation where a long term tragedy is unfolding.
Waters may recede soon but the threat of diseases and misery due to onset of winters will aggravate the problem in the near future. In the last one decade events like these have shown that the climate change is impacting our lives and the threat is now not distant but immediate and needs to be incorporated in every new plan for human settlement.
What is happening in Jammu and Kashmir is sadly an annual phenomenon in the North Eastern India where even this year Assam and Meghalaya are suffering devastating floods. More than 1.2 million people are marooned and winters are about to set in.
Ever since Independence, the country has broken all the records of population growth. In 1947 the population of the entire sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was estimated at 400 million. However, today sub-continent houses 1.65 billion out of which 1.25 billion reside in India alone. It means the country which has 2.4 percent of the entire global landmass houses slightly over 15 percent of its total population.
This exponential growth, coupled with feeble attempts at education, family planning and human resource development has created a situation where over whelming proportion of our society is ill equipped to handle changes. If the change is violent then their vulnerability increase manifolds.
Politicians have for long turned a blind eye towards such vulnerabilities. It is their stubborn refusal to accept that something is seriously wrong with the climate and the age old practices of business as usual can’t go on any longer, that is at the heart of the problem.
They have encouraged the poor and the needy to move from the rural areas to the city in search of better lives. This migration has been out of control for the last 4 decades. It has given rise to massive urbanisation of unplanned variety.
People have been allowed to squatter in small patches of land which are otherwise not fit for permanent settlements. However, as those who help these needy settle can take political mileage the game goes on unabated.
Most of the settlements in every town and city of India have without fail been built on water bodies, whether it’s new housing colony in Benaras’ Jagatganj or the large parts of East Delhi or new settlements in Mumbai.
The state of affair in Jammu and Kashmir is no different. The Dal Lake has been reduced from a 24 square kilometre water body to 12 square kilometres today. Many small water channels have been reclaimed and turned into housing colonies. Wullar Lake where most of the Kashmir’s rivers would empty their waters has suffered 80 percent encroachment.
This process of encroachment has been on since the last 100 years. Similarly no serious efforts have been made to prepare the state government machinery to deal with large scale natural disasters. The plans gather dust, budgets are inadequate, training dismal and communication absent. Secure in the belief that nothing untoward will happen as nothing has been happening in decades, emboldens people to take their chances. The central governing idea within the administration, political class and the society in general is – we shall cross the bridge as and when we come to it, it at all we come to it. This general apathy turns people into sitting ducks when the disaster actually strikes. Events in the last 10 years have amply shown the hollowness of their belief.
The flash floods in Mumbai in 2005, Uttarakhand in 2013, Baroda in Gujarat, Assam and Meghalaya and Kashmir in 2014 are a grim reminder that nature is in a revenge mode. It is turning its cycle to throw everyone out of gear.
The latest IPCC report categorically says that climate change will be manifested in extreme weather events with increasing regularity and intensity. This brings us to the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who lamented his government’s lack of preparedness to deal with such a tragedy by saying, “how can you prepare for once-in-a-century-crisis”.
His comment is both an admission of defeat and a sad commentary on how India has developed in the last 6 decades. Chickens are coming home to roost. All the misdeeds of our previous generations are coming back to haunt us. Tragedy is, in an event of extreme weather events like droughts and floods, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are hit the hardest.
The answer to his lament and to all those policy planners, administrators and rulers is, “prepare for once-in-a-century” events as they are going to be the new normal. The administration style, which is still mired in slow reaction mode is good to meet the nature when it is at its languid pace.
It is woefully inadequate to meet nature’s fury. The policymakers, administration and the leadership will have to get out of the files and create nimble systems at every level to deal with such sudden large scale tragedies.
Humans have for long turned to any suggestions of mindful living by saying, “I don’t care”. However, they should remember if the nature turns around and says the same it would be catastrophic for them.
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