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Convert tragedy into opportunity.

Seema Sengupta

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi played the Rambo in his previous avatar as the chief political executive of Gujarat and supposedly rescued 15,000 people in just 48 hours during the devastating Uttarakhand flood last year, the country was mesmerized by his apparently incredible micromanagement skills.

A vast majority started believing that Modi can indeed perform a miracle and -- unlike a sloth Manmohan Singh -- has that ability to protect hapless citizens from nature's fury, whatever the odds. When Modi became the premier, everybody in India thought that the days of bureaucratic inertia are over and in the blink of an eye everything will dramatically change from day one of Modi-rule. Alas, Kashmir's worst natural disaster in a century grounded the Modi-euphoria, generated basically by a pre-election publicity blitz.

If the Jammu and Kashmir government of Omar Abdullah is accused of mishandling flood relief, Modi must also be held responsible for keeping the federally controlled National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) headless for months after his administration ousted previous government's appointees from statutory bodies. That Modi is politically rigid, unlike his illustrious predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, can be gauged from the fact that his Cabinet tinkered with calamity preparedness -- even as the country was facing one disaster after another -- only to park those who favored him before the general election. However, to be fair to Modi, NDMA's full potential was also not unleashed by the previous Congress regime.

As the Modi government remains engrossed in overhauling the Disaster Management Act itself, absence of a well-defined centralized command structure did hamper flood relief work in Kashmir considerably. The Indian Army might have filled the gap with great alacrity, but there is no denying that Modi's government not only failed to anticipate the possibility of looming floods creating havoc in the upper Himalayan reaches in a deficit monsoon season but also rendered the NDMA toothless.

True, the provincial National Conference government was caught napping even though it approved a Disaster Management Policy back in 2012 for establishing a formal rescue, relief and rehabilitation infrastructure for disaster victims. But then, no state in India is in a position to deal with such devastating natural calamities on its own strength presently. And yet Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will likely lose no opportunity in exploiting this colossal human tragedy in the upcoming assembly polls to corner Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

However, the BJP must not forget that there has been a criminal negligence on the part of the central government agencies too, as they failed to alert the Kashmir administration adequately. The Indian meteorological department's seasonal rainfall data clearly shows that from a deficit seasonal shower of 308mm as on Sept. 3, Jammu and Kashmir's recorded rainfall in the next three days jumped to 558mm. But the Central Water Commission (CWC), responsible for flood forecasting and providing advisory to the states, did not deem it fit to issue a flood warning or even a general alert in the least for Jammu and Kashmir. Was it a deliberate omission because out of the 26 forecasts listed on Sept. 6, none was related to Kashmir and worst still no hydrograph was provided for the rivers located in the state?

Given such gross negligence, is it at all surprising that the images of swirling water from over-flooded rivers (sourced in Indian territory) plundering cities and villages in Kashmir will be deftly projected as proof of India's unleashing of a new water-war on Pakistan by some hardline elements?

Nature's fury has not spared the portion of Kashmir in Islamabad's control either as gushing flood waters have virtually drowned the line of control, thus obliterating the physical divide that has separated scores of Kashmiri families since 1947. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called for collaboration, primarily, between India and Pakistan as well as other South Asian nations in regional disaster management. Sharif has even shown great enthusiasm in fostering a cooperative partnership with India to mitigate the sufferings of Kashmiri people affected by the worst flood in the State's history. Modi, very rightly, took the lead in offering a helping hand and it is time for both the leaders to walk the talk. This, surely, is the opportune moment for both nations to seize the nature-given opportunity by relaxing travel across the de-facto line of partition to facilitate relief and rescue work. It will serve as another assurance to the Kashmiri people that they are not being treated as mere pawns in the respective politico-military armories of the warring neighbors.

Besides, such a move will help assuage the hurt sentiments of Kashmiri people who have all along suffered from inferiority complex, as their voices were made irrelevant intentionally. Above all, the penetrative social and economic impact of this natural calamity can be confronted by the setting up of a corpus of funds jointly and aggressively seeking international monetary-cum-infrastructural assistance for entire Kashmir's revival.

This is extremely essential for restoring the economic as well as health infrastructure of the picturesque province. As rightly noted by Prime Minister Sharif, South Asia is vulnerable to climate change and resulting disasters due to increasing economic activities and growth rate and rising demand for energy. This offers scope for New Delhi and Islamabad to help each other in mitigating disaster by setting up an efficient information sharing and early-warning mechanism to counter flood and other natural catastrophes together. Let this recent tragedy, therefore, become a catalyst for the rise of a new dawn in Indo-Pak relationship.


Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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