Cracked Earth

Landscapes of an occupation

By Mir Fatimah Kanth and Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh

18 August 2015

Has militarisation increased disaster vulnerability in India-administered Jammu & Kashmir?
Remains of the Army Camp built in Bela-Slamabad built on a stream bank

Remains of an Army camp in Bela-Slamabad built on a stream bank
Photo: Mahum Shabir

(This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.)

The road to the village of Gulzarpora from Kakapora in the Pulwama district of south Kashmir winds its way up and down hilly orchard country. Around us are terraced plateaus called Karewas – humped, clay deposits about 300 metres high. The Karewas are a product of a Pleistocene-era earthquake, which caused the ancient Satisar Lake to drain away, revealing the Jhelum Valley between the folds of the Pir Panjal and the Greater Himalayan mountain ranges. All along one side of the road are tangled barbwires. A few kilometres ahead, we see a high sound-proofed grey metal fence interrupted by watchtowers. This is the Indian Air Force’s massive Awantipora (Koil) Airforce Station, built on the Karewa uplands of Quil and Malangpora. Like most large military installations in Kashmir, it is built on higher ground and overlooks the town of Awantipora like a panopticon. On the other side of the road lies the ten-foot-high embankment of the ‘strategically important’ Jammu-Baramulla railway line. This runs roughly parallel to the left bank of the river Jhelum (historically more prone to breaches) bifurcating the whole valley longitudinally. Flanked by the air-force base on one side and the railway line and river on the other is the beleaguered village of Gulzarpora – our destination.

Given the elevation and the terrain, Gulzarpora seems an unlikely place for stagnating water. But the surrounding land is a marsh of rotting apples and plants, and the few concrete walls that remain standing all bear the telltale mark of the flood line. This, even when we visit six weeks after the India-Pakistan floods of September 2014, which killed 557 people and submerged about 2600 villages in India-administered Jammu & Kashmir alone.

The sweet putrid smell is over powering. Like most residents in other flooded villages in south Kashmir, the inhabitants of Gulzarpora unequivocally blame the unprecedented water levels and the prolonged inundations of the floods of September 2014 on the railway embankment. The Masjid Committee chairperson, Manzoor Ahmed Wani of the neighbouring village of Beighpora said, “We’ve never known such a flood before. Even though we’re close to the river, in the past, during the worst of floods, the water always drained away immediately. When they were building the [railway] line, we told them many times – what will happen to the water, when the snow melts and our nallahs are full? Where will the waters go? They have to join the Jhelum – you don’t have to be an engineer to know that. Water always finds a way, and now its way is blocked.” The floodwaters this time was nearly ten feet high and Gulzarpora remained cut off for over two weeks. About a hundred of its 300 mud-and-brick houses collapsed, while the rest were seen tilting on damaged foundations and sunken floors. Villagers rooted around the debris of their homes and cowsheds, looking to salvage their belongings. Electricity took a month to return because of the prolonged inundations, and the village was being supplied water by a daily tanker that was parked some distance away at the road-head. The railway embankment had been cut at strategic spots with earth-moving equipment hired by the community, before the waters could finally drain away enough to allow them to enter their houses.

The high priority ‘national project’ of Jammu-Baramulla railway line (sometimes in combination with the ‘strategically important’ supply line of National Highway 1A – also built on a high embankment on the other bank of the river Jhelum), has been widely seen by experts and locals as the cause of the unprecedented submergence and water logging, especially in south Kashmir and southern areas of Srinagar city. While the flood devastated over 400 villages in south Kashmir, washing away hundreds of houses, and damaging thousands of acres of crops and fruits, both the highway and the railway track remained largely untouched by the waters, due to their high elevation. A news report in Greater Kashmir on 2 October 2014 quoted Commissioner Secretary Pawan Kotwal as saying, “We thought since the breach has taken place, water will absorbed by the [flood] basin from Kandizal to Lasjan, but the track and the highway prevented the spread of water, which led to an increase in the level of flood water.” The report also quoted Javaid Jaffer, chief engineer of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department, who said the department had “started assessing the ‘impact’ of the highway and railway track as contributing factors to devastation”.

Ironically, it was on the railway embankment, the only accessible flood-safe structure in the vicinity that villagers sought refuge in and remained marooned on for over a week. When asked why they did not climb to higher ground on the surrounding Karewas to save themselves, a resident of Gulzarpora wishing to remain anonymous said, “No one can go there. The air force may have mined the land, they have shoot at sight orders. No Kashmiri will go to a camp voluntarily; chances are they will not come out alive. They [the airmen stationed there] stayed safe and secure up in their base and left us down here to drown.” Gulzarpora, like a majority of villages along this stretch, has lost over half its orchards and farmlands to massive official land acquisitions – first after the India-Pakistan War of 1965, for building the Air Force station and more recently, for the construction of the railway line and its associated military infrastructure of paramilitary security camps.

In 1990, in the wake of an armed resistance movement in Jammu & Kashmir, India intensified its military presence in the region, as part of its ‘counter insurgency’ (COIN) strategy. Defense analyst C B Dhakal characterises these operations as a ‘mixed approach’ which combines ‘massive military deployment’ such as ‘Operation Parakram’, the unofficial war with Pakistan in Kargil in 2001-2002, with ‘people-oriented programs such as socio-economic development’, exemplified by Operation Sadbhavana, the military operation aimed at winning Kashmiri ‘hearts and minds’ through community development. The Indian Army’s ‘Doctrine of Sub Conventional warfare’ (2006) states that the management and resolution of insurgencies requires multi pronged efforts, involving all elements of national power. This approach has been described by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs in their 2008-2009 Annual Report as including “focused attention on the developmental aspects with a view to strengthening the infrastructure, creating employment and income generation opportunities, and generally improving the quality of life of the people living in different regions of the state [of J & K].”

The Indian army spokesman in Kashmir, Lieutenant Colonel A K Mathur was quoted in Greater Kashmir by journalist Hilal Ahmed on 7 December 2007 as saying that there was a state policy of allowing the armed forces to occupy orchards (usually located on Karewas) when the armed insurgency started in 1990. “We were provided land in orchards and other places. So it is State government which should be held accountable for matters regarding the occupation of orchards,” he said. It is worth remembering that in that period, Kashmir was under Governor’s rule, the direct administration of the Indian federal government, while the state government stood suspended.  India’s massive military deployment in J & K, along with the expropriation of uplands and large-scale building of military infrastructure has severely compromised the fragile ecology of the Himalayan Hindukush-Karakoram region. The desolation of villages like Gulzarpora is a consequence of this.

Militarised landscapes
Warfare and militarisation are widely acknowledged to be among the most ecologically destructive human activities. Studies by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have found that serious environmental impact is caused by armed conflict and occupation in the Gaza Strip and Iraq. This includes the deterioration of water, waste and sanitation systems, pollution and contamination from oil, fire and spillage, degradation of agricultural resources, waste pollution and loss of biodiversity. Many commentators and reports on the Kashmir floods have attributed the devastating nature of the flooding to the degradation of Kashmir’s environment. This includes the effects of trans-Himalayan climate change, the fragmentation and urbanisation of wetlands and flood absorption basins, depletion of forest cover, soil erosion, encroachments on water bodies and river embankments, as well as poor disaster management systems put forward by the local administration.

Further, military control over civic infrastructure has ensured that the consequences of militarisation tend to remain invisible in both environmental discourse and when demanding accountability for human rights violations. It is common, for instance, to note the ineffectual functioning of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department in J & K, especially the failure to dredge flood-prone rivers in recent years. However, very little is said about the physical occupation of the Khwajbagh (Baramulla) Flood Mechanical Division campus – the largest such compound belonging to the Flood Control Department in the valley, used to store its heavy dredgers and mechanical equipment – by the Central Reserve Paramilitary force from the early 1990s upto 2010. This has adversely impacted the department’s dredging works, and led to the dereliction of its equipment, a retired flood control official told us in October 2014. Residents of Narbal, a flooded town located in Srinagar’s peripheral wetlands, whom we spoke to the same month, told us that the Border Security Force continued to occupy the Flood Control Department’s local offices.

Similarly unnoticed is that the massive militarisation of Kashmir’s highlands has played a major role in determining land use patterns in the valley, by pushing the growth of urban settlements in cities like Srinagar and Anantnag into progressively lower-lying flood-prone wetlands. Again, while the ‘humanitarian’ role of the armed forces in rescue operations is usually well documented, few have observed that many of Srinagar’s larger medical facilities, including Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS), its largest general hospital, and Lala Ded, its largest maternity facility – both of which are located in low-lying flooded areas – are partially occupied by military and paramilitary camps, who did not help with the hospital evacuations. This was done by community volunteers.

At present, the deeply penetrative counter-insurgency grid in J & K involves the deployment of an estimated 700,000 armed personnel, including regular forces of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force; paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force and Border Security Force; auxiliary forces such as the Territorial Army; other Central armed police forces such as Central Industrial Security Force and India Reserve Battalions; armed and regular police of local administration; and various community embedded state-armed operatives, including ‘volunteer’ members of Village Defense Committees and ‘Special Police Officers’ who are paid stipends by the J & K  police. As such, India-administered J & K is considered the most militarised region in the world, with one armed personnel to every 17 civilians and roughly seven armed personnel to every square kilometre of land. The figures are even more staggering when one considers that large parts of the region in Ladakh are under permafrost in subarctic deserts, with a population density of about three persons per square kilometre. The census of 2011 shows that 3.3 percent of the population of the region consists of Indian security personnel, not including state subjects of Jammu and Kashmir employed in the police, army or paramilitary.

In this context, it is easy to detect a pattern of land use where almost every topographical feature of Kashmir’s varied ecosphere – glaciers, forests, mountains, hills, paddy fields, stream beds or lakes – have been compromised by the consequences of military manoeuvres, huge convoy movements, encampments and military establishments.

This has also caused massive forced dislocations and natural resource deprivations, resulting in ecologically harmful livelihood adaptations by communities. This includes plantation of trees in riverbeds because local woods and forested areas are dangerously inaccessible, or the erosive over grazing of the few remaining alpine meadows, which are otherwise usually favoured by the armed forces for the hosting of firing ranges (Tosh Maidan), mountain warfare training facilities (Gulmarg) and large encampments (Sonmarg). The occupation of public buildings and community spaces has a direct impact on a community’s emergency preparedness, evacuation and humanitarian response. Medical and public institutions, along with the personnel associated with them – religious leaders, village elders, or local teachers and doctors are often first responders in evacuation and in providing shelter. Essential relief and medical services in an emergency, especially where official disaster management systems are nonexistent or fail, as they did in Kashmir in 2014, are provided by these community spaces. Large public spaces of evacuation and shelter such as cinema halls, stadiums, college and university buildings, parks, and hotels are rendered inaccessible in cities, even as local higher grounds, hill sides, pastures and Karewas are enclosed by barbed wire, mined and manned by gun-yielding soldiers in the countryside.

The exact extent of land under the armed forces is highly disputed. Large tracts of land remain illegally occupied having never been formally demarcated, leased, transferred or acquired under the Jammu and Kashmir Land Acquisition Act, or any other prevailing law. Proprietary owners of some of these lands, whether it is the state government or private farmers, orchard owners, nomadic, forest or lake dwelling communities, receive no rent or compensation for these lands.

While poor regulation and bad planning certainly had a role in this destructive pattern of growth, what is rendered invisible in this map of land use is the pervasive military occupation of the city’s hill sides and the Karewas, extending both north and south along the valley floor into which river-bank cities could have expanded. In response to a question about his government’s plans for the rebuilding of Srinagar after the floods, the Jammu & Kashmir chief minister stated in an interview to Greater Kashmir, on 23 September 2014, “Srinagar will continue to be where it is… You can’t move a city as large as this. It’s easy to say that flood prone areas be vacated. Where will I take the people? Will I make them scale mountains?” The chief minister failed to mention that the reason that Srinagar’s residents cannot build their homes and high streets on hillside terraces, like for instance the valley dwellers of Greece, is because almost all the hills and mountains are under the ‘legal’ or illegal occupation by Indian Armed Forces, or the bureaucratic and security apparatus of the occupation. The precolonial cities of Srinagar, whether it was Rinchenpur and Alauddinpura near the Hariparbat Hill, Nowshera built by Zain-ulAbadin, or the Mughal city of the Shahr-e-Khas, always lay on the slopes and relative highlands in the city rather than in the swampy flood plains. These areas of the ‘old city’ or ‘downtown’ largely remained flood safe, even during the worst of the flooding in September.

According to the daily Rising Kashmir, a 2013 ‘Joint Preliminary report’ on Master Plan violations in Badamibagh Cantonment, prepared by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation and Srinagar Development Authority (SDA), states that “military establishments within the cantonment area from Shekrashari up to Pantha Chowk and from Zewan Chowk to Zawoora, Ballhama have been constructed in blatant violation of the Master Plan.” The report, which was prepared in response to directions given by the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, found that there were extensive illegal constructions in the Badamibagh Cantonment area which occupies 1458 acres (including a ‘civilian area’ of 313 acres) of predominantly hilly, forested lands in Srinagar city. The report stated that “most of the Army establishments have been constructed outside the delineated [cantonment] area, in the ecologically fragile zone,” and that these illegal constructions “on agricultural land, green areas, wetlands, mountain peaks, which have been raised illegally, need to be demolished to safeguard the environment and agricultural sustainability.” The effect on urban planning of such large scale military occupation is visible in the Srinagar City Master Plan (2000-2021)’s proposed expansions to the city, such as the building of a new business district, administrative zone, several new multistoried residential housing colonies and a resettlement housing colony for Dal lake dwellers, after landfilling of former wetlands, in Bemina. In 2013 officials from SDA described the illegal military occupation of the ‘Militia Grounds’ (about 25 acres), located on the banks of the Doodh Ganga Canal in a residential city area by the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI) regiment, as the ‘greatest hurdle’ to the city’s ‘holistic development’.

Large multistoried official and semi-official buildings and housing, such as the Revenue Department Offices, the Police Forensic Laboratory and the Jhelum Valley Corporation (JVC) Medical College have been built in these former marshes, which traditionally functioned as critical flood absorption basins. The headquarters of the State Disaster Relief Force, along with its stores and rescue equipment located in low lying Baghat-Barzulla, next to the flood spill channel in Srinagar became dysfunctional in the first round of flooding on 4 September 2014 – three days before the worst of the breaches and overflows hit the city. The SDA’s offices in Bemina was also inundated, becoming emblematic both of the disaster vulnerability of its newer areas and the failure of disaster management, civil defence and urban planning authorities. Fategarh colony near Anantnag town, part of the Rashtriya Rifles’ ‘High Ground’ camp in south Kashmir, shows how the acquisition of high lands directly impacts the growth of cities towards ever more low lying areas, resulting in ‘encroachments’ on river banks, and the fragmentation of wetlands and flood absorption basins. In a 26 August 2014 Greater Kashmir news report on the struggle to recover their illegally expropriated homes, residents cited the unavailability of land for housing as one of the reasons for “encroachments in the town”.

During the 2014 floods, residents and tourists from flooded areas in Srinagar sought safety in thousands on the surrounding unoccupied highlands, while large swathes of hillside belonging to the Badamibagh cantonment area remained resolutely inaccessible to the public. The military prioritised saving their own men and materials in damaged defence establishments over evacuating civilians, including infants at GB Pant Children’s Hospital, located within the Cantonment grounds where 11 neonatal deaths occurred before military rescue crews arrived. This delayed emergency response by at least 24 hours. For instance in Kakapora, Pulwama, where a rescue boat carrying armed forces personnel capsized along with their arms and ammunitions, a large contingent of soldiers were engaged in massive ‘combing operations’ through the next day to recover their guns, even as civilians remained stranded on roofs.

Civil-military relations
The physical occupation of lands and public infrastructure is only the most obvious feature of the military dominated nature of the ‘civil-military liaison’ that characterises the complex and integrationist occupation of Jammu & Kashmir. It is through the normalised and pervasive hollowing out of democracy, local executive authority and public accountability, underlying India’s ‘development oriented’ counter-insurgency strategy – the second flank of its ‘combined’ approach in Kashmir – by which the occupation is made real in everyday lives of Kashmiris.

The involvement of military officials in administrative decision making, which affect the lives and property of millions of Kashmiri civilians, are shrouded in official secrecy. Reports and eye-witness accounts suggest that at various points during the official response to the recent floods, military factors influenced technical questions, of whether certain levees or embankments should be breached. The breaching of the Kandizaal embankment, south of the city was, for instance, the subject of a public spat between flood control officials and the armed forces.

On 16 October 2014, the General Officer in Command, Sub Area Srinagar Major General Ajay Das issued a widely reported press statement arguing that the J & K state government authorities did not open the Kandizaal embankment upstream. There was a proposal to divert the river upstream and engineers were sent but it was already too late. The Flood Control Department maintained in an official press release that there was no such ‘proposal’ of deliberately breaching the embankment, located in a residential area built in a former flood basin, that in fact the breach had already naturally occurred on the 4 September, and that on 3 September “the matter was discussed with the concerned Brigadier/Colonel thoroughly”. The press release further asserted that the statement made by Major General Ajay Das that “the army authorities were not intimated in time is not based on facts.” The armed forces’ authority to issue instructions and take action superseding authorised civilian defence agencies in matters of an essentially civilian nature was taken for granted, both in the accusation and its rebuttal.

In October 2014, a former flood control official told us on condition of anonymity that a representative of the armed forces was always a member of the central flood control committee, formed as a part of the Standard Operating Procedure when the waters reached danger levels, and was privy to all the decision making of the committee. While the inclusion of a member from the Cantonment Board which functions as a parallel and autonomous civic authority for a large part of the city may be justified, a copy of the Flood Control Duty Chart, which enlists the members of the committee, including members of several police and development departments, makes no mention of such a member from the armed forces or cantonment board. Such ‘unofficial’ or secret military involvement permeates almost every aspect of governance in Kashmir and is the well known public secret behind the local administration’s complete executive incapacity.

Anthropologist Mona Bhan, whose work focuses on militarisation in the Kargil region and Gurez valley states:

As a counterinsurgency tactic, development blur[s] the tenuous boundary between militarism and humanitarianism to forge a sociopolitical order in which projects of social improvement, compassion, and betterment provide an ideal framework to strengthen the military’s reach and credibility in conflict zones.

Within this framing, all development projects, disaster management and civil defence mechanisms in Kashmir – whether they are the building of a railway line, the construction of multiple hydroelectric projects on the Jhelum and Chenab rivers, the regulation of National Highway traffic, or the breaching of a particular river embankment during flooding – are all intimately entangled with Indian ‘national security’, which overrides every other consideration.

The disastrous and much delayed Indian-government-funded Jammu-Baramulla railway line provides an illustrative example. Sometimes referred to as the Kashmir Railway Project, it is a 345-kilometre extension to the Indian Railway Network, which when fully built will connect the ‘geographically isolated’ Kashmir Valley to the Jammu plains and Indian mainland. It was first proposed in the late 19th century. No significant progress on its construction was however made until it was designated a priority ‘national project’ by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, more than a hundred years later. This classification removed all budgetary constraints on the project, as unlimited funds could be allocated to it from the Consolidated Fund of India rather than the Indian Railway’s budget. The total cost estimated at INR 2500 crore in 1995 has escalated eight fold to INR 19,565 crore with the expected commissioning date in December 2018 instead of November 2002 as initially estimated.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have been extremely critical of the cost over-runs, delays and lack of adequate preliminary, technical studies. The crucial bridging of the Chenab Valley remains incomplete and mired in delays and serious safety, engineering and disaster vulnerability concerns and litigation. Discussions of the Kashmir Railway Project constantly emphasise its strategic importance and role in integrating Kashmir into the national mainstream through development. The inaugurations of the last two phases of the project – Qazigund to Banihal in 2013, and Udhampur to Katra in 2014 – have seen visits by consecutive Indian prime ministers and speeches redolent with metaphors drawn from the Indian Army’s ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ (WHAM) counter-insurgency strategy. Journalist Luv Puri in an article titled ‘Hope chugs in’ published in the Hindu on 17 Jun 2007 regarding the building of the railway line provides a vivid description of how this deeply communal and divisive policy works on the ground. He writes:

The [railway] project is under a thick blanket of security with the para-military forces deployed near the project sites and J and K police personnel spread around the hills for area domination. Ever since the project picked up pace, security forces have recorded important successes, courtesy the fact that intelligence inputs have come from the local Gujjar population. For instance, Sharief, a Hizbul Mujahideen Commander and one of the most wanted militants, was eliminated due to the precise information provided by a Gujjar clan. A senior police officer said, “Ever since the Railway project started, our information base has considerably improved and we are giving militants a run for money.”

The building of multiple hydroelectric projects, has been a part of the Indian government’s ‘post-conflict’ reconstruction schemes and packages, especially the 2004 Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Plan, with INR 19,162 crores of the total amount of INR 27,902 crores being allocated to the power sector under the heads of seven major National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) projects, 1000 Micro Hydel Projects, and centre’s assistance to the financial closure of the Baglihar Project. The power-sharing agreements under the scheme have, however, been heavily criticised, as power generated from these projects is sold back to J & K at a profit. The NHPC and Government of India have constantly resisted the state government’s attempts to buy back these projects. NHPC has been trenchantly criticised for its exploitative and corrupt practices and lack of a social or environmental conscience in relation to various hydroelectric projects, including in the Narmada Valley in central India, Teesta and Subansiri projects in the Northeast and the Tamanthi project in Burma.

In Kashmir, the building of dams is imbricated deeply in the belligerent hydro-politics of the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, with little attention to ecological consequences or Kashmir’s natural-resource sovereignty. Mona Bhan writes:

In Kashmir, whose rivers were partitioned in 1947 and have since remained a major source of contention between India and Pakistan, dams are key “strategic” investments to maintain India’s national and energy security and retain critical control over disputed waters of the Indus River basin.

She argues that “the construction of… dams in the J & K state to harness its water resources is as indubitable an expression of India’s illegitimate rule in the region and its extensive military hold over Kashmir.”

In the 2014 floods, an Army and BSF camp, including its armoured vehicles and ammunition stores, located on an abandoned and non-functional NHPC project site was washed away in Bela-Slamabad, due to flash floods in the Haapathkhy stream. This illustrated yet again the extent to which supposedly civilian developmental infrastructure is militarised. A news report in Greater Kashmir on 21 September 2014 stated that locals, who were terrified of the potential damage to their fields and homes from the buried ammunition debris, blamed the NHPC for the devastation that the area has witnessed during the flash floods. The report states:

According to a group of elders, NHPC authority had filled a vast area on one side of the Haapathkhy stream, shrinking the area of the Haapathkhy stream to a great extent. They said that the material dumped by the NHPC way back in 1995 is loosely attached and once the flash floods hit the area on Friday, a major portion of these was washed away in the floods and this huge material landed in the village.

Increasing risk
The militarised nature of a disaster zone may exacerbate vulnerabilities as military and security priorities delay and determine the humanitarian response to a disaster. In the case of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a small and militarised Indian archipelago outpost, Indian naval forces prioritised the safety of their equipment and personnel over that of the largely indigenous population during the 2004 Tsunami. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake that affected areas across the Line of Control in Kashmir:

The Indian and Pakistani militaries simply did not make the saving of Kashmiri lives a top priority. As India and Pakistan engaged in diplomatic one-upmanship – making and refusing offers of help based on political opportunism rather than humanitarian concerns – the death toll mounted.

The report, which focuses on Pakistan-administered Kashmir, stated “In the first seventy-two hours after the earthquake, thousands of Pakistani troops stationed in [Pakistan-administered] Azad Kashmir prioritized the evacuation of their own personnel over providing relief to desperate civilians.”

Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, located in India’s economically and political marginalised and ethnically and racially ‘different’ Northeast, were hit by floods, at almost the same time as Kashmir Valley, drawing attention once again to the increasing ecological instability of the entire Himalayan region, which had previously suffered devastating floods in 2009 (Nepal), 2010 (Ladakh) and 2013 (Utttarakhand).

Commentators comparing the floods of Kashmir and the Northeast spoke of them as both occurring in India’s ‘peripheries’, riddled with problems of corruption, big dams and lack of planning. Comparisons were made about the considerably greater media coverage of the Kashmir floods, because of its internationally disputed ‘conflict zone’ status, and the Northeast’s relative invisibility in the national imagination. But little was said about the highly-militarised ecologies in both areas.

The Uttarakhand flood, another Himalayan disaster, provided the first instance of sustained real-time televised coverage of relief and rescue by ‘embedded’ journalists accompanying military rescue missions. The coverage was framed within hyper nationalistic narratives of Indian military heroism, patriotism and humanitarianism. This form of reportage was also a dominating feature of the coverage during the Kashmir floods, where journalists covering the disaster, flying directly into the military airbase that doubles up as Srinagar’s civilian airport, accessed the flood ‘story’ almost exclusively through Indian Air Force helicopter sorties over parts of Srinagar city on televised relief and rescue missions. However, the added layer of Kashmir’s historical ‘anti-national’ hostility to the occupying Indian armed forces amplified the jingoistic pitch of the coverage. The news was overwhelmingly reported and editorialised in a language of vindication, at the televised spectacle of ‘grateful’ Kashmiris being ‘saved’ by the very occupying forces they otherwise oppose.

Few months after the floods in Kashmir, India’s southeastern coastline was hit by a massive cyclone, Hudhud. Accurate forecasts were made and warnings were widely broadcast 24 hours in advance of the landfall, including by the Indian Meteorological Department, which in the Jammu and Kashmir case had merely issued a mildly worded forecast about “fairly widespread” rain. The National Disaster Management Force was deployed in advance and large-scale evacuations of vulnerable villages took place, thus minimising human losses. News reports stated that 24 hours before the cyclone hit the coast, more than 30 disaster management teams were operational and more than hundred thousand residents had been evacuated to safer areas, with a total of four hundred thousand identified for evacuation.

 India received glowing international commendation from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) for the timely intervention. In the aftermath of the Kashmir floods, India denied the need for international humanitarian aid and was widely reported as blockading the entry of humanitarian supplies and relief workers, and minimising the scale of the humanitarian crisis. However, after the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India welcomed international aid, including from the UNDP and 300 international organisations were based out of the devastated town of Bhuj alone. The dramatic differences in the Indian state and media responses to these disasters begs the questions of why disaster hazards in some parts of its territory are treated with greater seriousness and concern than others and the ways in which the lives and human rights of politically insurgent subjects are further marginalised within the nation-centric political imagination.

The nationalist Indian media coverage, which was also apparent in the militarised relief efforts following the Nepal earthquake, displayed an extraordinary focus on narratives of military heroism, patriotism and an editorial slant towards seeing the Indian forces as ‘saviors’ despite Kashmiri ‘ingratitude’. The floods were read as a justification of their presence as an occupying force, since they had saved Kashmir while the local administration had failed them. A recent editorial by Samir Saran, vice president of the Observe Research Foundation, an Indian public-policy think tank, suggested that it was the “Infrastructure of Occupation… helipads built on apple orchards, hospitals built on peach orchards, and supply dumps built on farm land ­– that are now being used so effectively to rescue the stranded, treat the wounded and provide relief supplies to the displaced”. It also declared, somewhat puzzlingly, that “it is the maligned Armed Forces Special Powers Act used to ‘suppress’ the Kashmiris, that the Army is using to deliver critical supplies to the ‘occupied’.” Laying aside the contentious question of the extent and effectiveness of the armed force’s humanitarianism, and whether or not Kashmiris ought to be grateful, what this view completely ignores is that it is this very ‘infrastructure of occupation’ that is responsible for Kashmir’s tortured ecology and people.

~Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh is a human rights lawyer and researcher based in Srinagar. She is presently pursuing her doctoral studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Mir Fatimah Kanth works with a civil-liberties and human-rights organisation in Srinagar.

~The article is based on a report titled Occupational Hazard: Jammu Kashmir Floods of September 2014 , JKCCS, Srinagar April 2015, co-authored by Ghosh and Kanth.

~This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.

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