Kashmir: Disorder after disaster
For all his life, 60-year-old Abdul Rehman Dar had proudly tilled the land on his three-acre farm in the highly productive Kashmir Valley. But his work came to a sudden halt when the surging Vishu River flattened two-thirds of his village and damaged hundreds of acres of prized agricultural land in September 2014.
Like many others who lost nearly everything in Gund village, which lies in the southern district of Kulgam, Dar’s self-confidence has taken a beating. “All my land is under layers of mud, sand and boulders deposited by that ruthless flood,” he says, barely able to hold back tears. In a sobbing voice, he says that the loss of his farmland has shattered all his dreams.
After years of hard work in the fields, Dar had planned to pass the farm to his son. The region is known for its agriculture and farming was a reliable source of income that his family could rely on. Now the future is less clear.
“Losing my prized land is simply the end of my life and the beginning of hardships for my family,” Dar says. “Some years back I refused to accept a job offer for my only son in the police department with the hope that he has a lot to thrive on in the form of my three-acre farm land. But, today I strongly regret that decision.” The guilt, he says, still haunts him, but police work is a dangerous job in a place like Kashmir where squads encounter pro-freedom protesters fighting to end Indian rule on an almost daily basis.
Though it’s been over a year since the floodwaters devastated his village, Dar still lives in a make-shift single room that was hastily provided by the government to house more than 50 displaced families. Lying in his bed, he spends a lot of time worrying about his family’s prospects. “Now what can my son do? He is not capable of working as a daily laborer, but then, he has no other option,” Dar says. “He has to earn for the survival of his family – his wife and two small kids.”
Job opportunities in the Kashmir Valley are slim. With little industry, most vacancies are offered by the government through its police and education departments. Recent years have seen massive corruption as desperate families often pay bribes to ensure slots for their sons and daughters on employment lists.
Dar says he could have easily bought that officer job for his son by bribing the fixer who offered the position. Now even these jobs are becoming scarce. “Today my son would have had the support of a steady monthly salary. But, while nature snatched away the land from him, I deprived him off a job,” he says regretfully.
Many farmers like Dar who are in similar positions have little to fall back on. According to official figures, around 135,000 hectares of agricultural land has suffered damage due to flooding over the last year in more than 100 villages in Kashmir. In many rural areas, surging waters from the tributaries of Jhelum washed away stretches of land where paddy, maize and orchards once stood.
Shahbaz Lone, a farmer in Sonawari-Bandipore, lost a year’s worth of crops and much of his land to the September floods, but he has yet to receive substantial assistance from the government, save a 200kg bag of rice. It has been difficult, he says, to find work as a day laborer and he had to sell off his herd of seven cattle because he could no longer afford to feed them.
The Psychological Impact
As the initial shock of devastation and loss wears off, those struggling to recover from extreme weather events with little help are facing long-term psychological impacts. Dar shows symptoms of depression and anxiety, and complains of many health issues. His son, Altaf Ahmad, has taken him to various doctors, but nothing so far has worked. “Most of the times he stays quiet and sometimes he breaks down all of a sudden,” Ahmad says. It’s becoming a common problem in the community as many flood victims waiting for assistance are losing hope.
Ahmad says that in addition to his father, other members of his family worry about how they will be able to build a new home without any resources coming in. So far, the family says it has received no substantial help from the government.
“The government had assured us of financial assistance for constructing our new homes, but we have only received 75,000 rupees ($1,175 USD), which is peanuts. And we don’t even have land where we can construct our houses. It won’t be free of danger to construct them again in our previous village which was ruined by the floods,” Ahmad says.
According to the latest official numbers—which many locals believe are purposefully understated— the floods destroyed 67,661 homes and affected the livelihoods of 30,000 people. During a recent visit to the region, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged 2,000 crore Indian rupees (approximately $303 million USD), but this falls far short of the estimated 44,000 crore rupees ($6.02 billion USD) requested shortly after the floods to reconstruct damaged infrastructure and compensate for losses suffered by the flood-hit families.
With little available help from the government, affected residents are struggling to find ways to restart their lives. Helplessness gives way to frustration, as many are unable to leave the makeshift accommodation they’ve been living in since the floods hit last September. With all members of the family occupying a single room, there is no privacy and schoolchildren lack separate rooms to study in. The aftermath of the floods, they say, has impacted all parts of their lives.
“A youth, who was engaged to a girl in a nearby village, was forced to break his relationship as the parents of his fiancée were not sure about his prospects,” a flood victim who preferred to stay anonymous said while referring to the challenges they have been confronting.
Concerns over livelihood and survival are starting to take their toll on the mental health of the community. Dr. Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist in Srinagar, says that while this is a normal reaction for people whose lives are uprooted by a sudden disaster, it’s not surprising that effects are more strongly felt in Kashmir.
“Kashmir is already witness to one of the worst conflicts of modern times with huge human costs and a heavy toll on mental health,” he says. “Lifetime prevalence of major depression, substance use disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is at all-time high in this part of the world.” If important steps such as psychological counseling and financial support to victims are delayed or not taken, Hussain says the problem can get much worse. “The economic costs of this huge mental health burden can be enormous,” he says. “The more we delay rehabilitation, more and more of them will succumb to depression. Such a scenario has to be avoided at all costs.”
Psychologist Roshan Ara, who has carried out research on the mental health of disaster victims, says that continuous engagement is necessary until key issues are addressed. “Soon after the floods, many non-governmental organizations started taking care of the mental health of the victims. Some of them had made arrangements for recreational activities for children in the cold season, but such an engagement should have been continued for some more time,” Ara says.
Trade is the predominant source of economic activity in Srinagar City, but thousands of small businesses were destroyed by the recent flood. Rafiq Rather used to support his family by selling clothes in Batmaloo, but his business, which was heavily damaged by the floodwaters, was not insured. “After the flood, I took the cloth rolls out of the shop and cleaned them for many days with the help of my wife and kids,” he says, “But, I still couldn’t get one-third of the money I had gotten them for.”
It’s a major economic blow. To make ends meet, Rather now sells clothes from a cart on the street. “Life has become really hard after the floods. I wonder for how long I can carry on,” he says.
Rather is not alone. According to the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF), over 33,000 businesses suffered losses during the September 2014 floods. A majority of them were not insured against losses due to natural disasters.
The Jammu and Kashmir government made assurances that businesses who had suffered losses would be given financial support, but many are still waiting. “Only around 600 shopkeepers and other businessmen among 33,000 have got the financial assistance. The rest are yet to get it,” KTMF said during a recent statement.
Another group, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), has questioned the manner and pace of rehabilitation process for the flood victims. “It’s ironic that only Rs 2,000 crore rupees ($303 million USD) is earmarked for rehabilitation of flood victims and out of this, only Rs 800 crore rupees ($120 million USD) are for the rehabilitation of businesses,” says KCCI’s president, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani.
“The government has clearly failed to meet the expectations of the flood victims in general and the small businessmen in particular. Even insurance companies have settled claims of over 2,000 crore rupees.”
Kashmir handicrafts such as Pashima shawls, are world famous and have long been a major source of economic income, but these prized artisans were among the worst hit. Many beautiful products and studios were damaged or destroyed.
Without tools or material, local artisan Bashir Mir cannot work. “These days, I am as good as a fish out of water,” he says. “I used to get advance money and raw material from a trader for weaving the shawls. But ever since he heard that floods had washed away my tools and my house, he never met me for work.”
Like many of his fellow artisans, Mir—once highly sought after for his products—is now seeking employment as an unskilled laborer. Not only does he make less, but opportunities have also gone cold with the onset of winter.
“During the past week, I could work for two days only,” he says. In north Kashmir, an NGO has set up Artisan Production and Development Centers (APDCs) to aid unemployed workers, but artisans in Mir’s area have received no such support.
“Apart from the loss or damage in terms of products and tools, the artisan community was confronted with extreme financial hardships because they used to get advance wages,” says Yasir Qureshi, Senior Program Manager for the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS). “We have set up 13 such centers and are also providing material support to the artisans for weaving of carpets. Entire amount earned by selling the product goes to the artisans.”
A year on, thousands of farmers, traders and skilled laborers are still waiting for the government to come out with a comprehensive plan to revive their shattered economy. In the meantime, communities are attempting to move forward. Taxi driver Bilal Ahmad Koka, who lost both of his cabs to the floods, says he was lucky they were insured. “Otherwise, today I would be also one of those wanting the government to do something for me,” Koka says. One beneficiary of the recent disasters, local insurance companies claim to have seen a 500 percent increase in new policies. “Following the floods, businessmen are insuring businesses against full value and are quite willing to pay high premiums,” says Imtiyaz Ahmad, who works for an Indian insurance company in Kashmir. But tougher regulations on agricultural businesses are preventing farmers from