By Rhea Kumar
A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Aaminah b’Hat, BR ’18, and Inshah Malik, visiting Fox Fellow
Walking back to Vanderbilt Hall from the library one September evening, I saw Aaminah b’Hat, a freshman at Yale College from New Jersey, speaking agitatedly to a bunch of students in the Vanderbilt courtyard. The students listened to her with a look of grim concern on their faces. Aaminah is a good friend and my step quickened instinctively as I sensed that something was wrong. As I drew near, I heard Aaminah describe the devastating impact of the Kashmir floods on families and facilities in the region. The statistics were mind-numbing. After a brief discussion, the group dispersed and Aaminah turned to me with a look of despair.
“My entire extended family is in Srinagar, and most of them live near Dal Lake, which is one of the worst-hit areas,” Aaminah, who is originally from Kashmir, continued anxiously. “I don’t know what to do, but I need to do something.”
Need. That one word said it all. Need conveys the desperation of the people in India’s northern most state, Kashmir, devastated at this moment by a flood of unparalleled magnitude. Yet need is also an empowering word. A deep-seated heartfelt need to do something can be quickly translated into action. And action spells hope for the people of Kashmir.
The flood started in September 2014 when torrential rains caused the major lakes and rivers in Kashmir to overflow. While Jammu and Kashmir receives an average of 100 mm of rain for the entire month of September, this year, the first 4 days alone recorded about 400 mm of rain. While North India experienced a delayed and deficient monsoon season this year, the week from September 3 to September 10 witnessed a wet run, with rainfall 64% above average. Flash floods began and escalated in Kashmir in the same week, mainly hitting the Srinagar and South Kashmir regions but also parts of Jammu.
Inshah Malik, a doctoral student and visiting Fox Fellow at Yale, believes that the reasons behind the floods go beyond high rainfall. Inshah grew up in Srinagar and completed her undergraduate education there, followed by a graduate degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research focuses on the politics and society in Kashmir, particularly the relations between militarization, security, and gender. According to her, Kashmir has not experienced a flood of this magnitude since 1935. “Torrential rains by themselves would likely not cause a flood of such magnitude. Increasing tourism and the resulting pressures on the environment of Kashmir have played a key role in prompting the recent floods,” she says. Inshah’s claim certainly carries some weight. In an article on the environmental causes of Kashmir’s floods, Indian environmental activist Sunita Narain talks about how expanded construction activities in Kashmir, particularly in the low lying areas of Srinagar, have blocked the natural drainage channels in Kashmir’s lakes and rivers that are meant to prevent floods. Moreover, climate change and global warming have led to unpredictable and erratic rainfall patterns like this year’s.
The lack of natural disaster preparedness in the region also exacerbated the impact of the floods. Between September 3 and 4, several hydrological stations on the Jhelum river recorded alarming jumps in the water level. However, these early warning signs were ignored. The failure to predict the disaster early on and issue warnings before it escalated, compounded the destruction and havoc caused by the floods. In Aaminah’s words, “The signs were present at least ten days before the crisis but nobody paid any attention to them.”
The floods have affected about 6 million people in Kashmir, killing hundreds of people and displacing at least 200,000 families. In the initial stages of the flood, communication networks and cellular towers stopped functioning. The floods destroyed as many as 60 roads and 30 bridges, cutting off access to various regions of Kashmir such as Anantnag and Baramulla, and severely compromising the disaster response. “Due to the breakdown of communication systems, I could not talk to my family for three weeks,” Inshah tells me. “I did not know if they were alive or dead.”
While government relief operations are in full swing and the floods have begun receding, the devastation and capital loss caused by the floods will take decades to repair and reverse. “Kashmir barely had time to recover from the devastation of the 2005 earthquake before the floods happened,” Aaminah says ruefully on a quiet Sunday afternoon in her suite. “The foundation of my maternal grandparents’ house in Srinagar has cracked in multiple places, which is very dangerous because the houses are made of cemented marble, and a cracked foundation makes the entire section unstable. My aunt’s house, which is right by Dal Lake, is completely decimated and she had just renovated it. It is a huge, huge loss for my family and others in Kashmir, who invest their life’s savings in building their houses where they plan to spend the rest of their lives.”
Almost all the major hospitals in Srinagar have been submerged under the water, undermining healthcare assistance at a time when medical needs are high and water borne infections are spreading fast. “One of my aunts was expecting twins, her first children,” Aaminah tells me. “She went into labor two months before her delivery date and the hospital they took her to was understaffed and lacked basic facilities because of the floods…one of the children died in a couple of days. The other was 2.5 pounds. My aunt, who is a doctor, has taken the child home and is caring for him over there. They cannot leave him in the hospital for fear that he will catch an infection. ”
In response to the crisis, the Indian army launched rescue and evacuation operations in the region with the support of local people and volunteers. The Indian government has organized airlifts of food, water, blankets, and other supplies to the affected population. In addition to an initial Central assistance pledge of $160m, the government recently pledged another $120 million relief package for the reconstruction of Kashmir.
The support and co-operation of the local Kashmiri people has been critical to the relief efforts. While the government continues to mobilize troops and supplies, hope for many of the affected people comes from their relatives and friends, their resilience, and their determination to set things right. “When I finally got to speak to my father, he told me how proud he was to be a Kashmiri,” Inshah tells me. “I was baffled that he would make this statement during such difficult times. Yet he explained to me how Kashmiris were coming together to mobilize relief and help themselves. They organized and participated in rescue initiatives and took many of the displaced into their homes. My father rescued about a hundred people himself.” Inshah says, with a trace of pride in her voice.
The Kashmiri and South Asian Diasporas in the United States have also been doing their bit to aid the relief efforts. “Most of the Kashmiris in the United States are well off and many of them are doctors, so they have found ways to help either by going to Kashmir themselves or by sending medical supplies. Many of my family’s friends have been actively participating in the relief efforts,” says Aaminah.
Along similar lines, the Yale Kashmir Relief Initiative (YKRI) was started by Yale students, both from and outside South Asia. These students felt the need to do something to help the victims of the Kashmir floods and have organized several activities on the Yale campus aimed at spreading awareness and raising funds for relief operations. The Initiative has held panel discussions about environmental problems in Kashmir and the need for humanitarian aid. It also raised money for the flood relief efforts by selling tickets to a Toads party in advance and putting up a stall outside Commons to collect donations. At the banquet for Diwali, a major Indian festival celebrated on campus, the founders of the initiative, Marios Falaris and Shalmoli Halder, went around speaking to students and others about the situation in Kashmir and collecting donations. The initiative has an online donation platform (http://www.youcaring.com/nonprofits/yale-kashmir-relief-initiative/239108) as well. The donations will go towards funding an Indian NGO called Pragya and a Pakistani NGO called the Edhi Foundation, both humanitarian organizations working at the grassroots level in Kashmir. Another South Asian group on campus, Yalies in Pakistan, set up a fundraising stall during the Fall Festival to collect donations for the Kashmir Relief Initiative.
The Initiative’s most publicized event on the Yale campus was a Benefit Concert in Battell Chapel from 5-7 pm on October 5. The concert featured performances from several Yale performance groups, including RAAS, the Slavic Women’s Chorus, Pitches and Tones, the Raga Society, Teeth, Proof in the Pudding, and the Purple Crayon. Aaminah, who was one of the key organizers of the Benefit Concert, tells me that the initiative has managed to raise some funds over the past two months and has been instrumental in promoting dialogue in the US over the floods in Kashmir. But the collection is still way short of their $10,000 target. Aaminah laments that many students could not attend the initial fundraising and solidarity events such as the concert because they happened during mid-term season.
Both Aaminah and Inshah laud the Yale Kashmir Relief Initiative’s efforts but hope that they will be carried further, beyond immediate relief and assistance. “The kind of damage that has happened in Kashmir requires sustained aid over long periods of time to achieve reconstruction and I hope that the efforts of the Diaspora can enable such aid,” says Aaminah.
So what else can students at Yale, and other universities, do to augment the relief efforts in Kashmir? Aaminah feels spreading awareness is the key. “The United States is a great superpower. If enough people in the US were aware of the issue and raised their voice for the people in Kashmir, maybe it could influence the United Nations and Western countries to get more involved on the ground and set up systems and procedures that would increase the effectiveness of the humanitarian assistance offered by the Indian and Pakistani governments. Spreading awareness about the plight of Kashmir is the least we can do.”
Besides basic humanitarian needs, the state of Kashmir needs long-term changes in its disaster management and response systems. In 2012, the state government introduced a new Disaster Management Policy for Kashmir, but is yet to set up a separate state department to deal with disasters in Kashmir. Also, Kashmir still lacks proper flood forecasting systems.
In this time of dire need, the actions of the local Kashmiri people as well as the Diaspora certainly spell hope for the people in Kashmir. Talking to Aaminah and Inshah, I sense a larger kind of hope, one that transcends the immediate context of the floods. As Inshah says, “Maybe the Kashmir floods are an opportunity for us to discuss prospects for sustainable, inclusive development in Kashmir.”
Unregulated tourism and construction in Kashmir at the cost of its natural resources and agricultural land have revealed the classic conflict between economy and ecology yet again. The recent floods have been a clarion call drawing attention to the sensitive ecology of the region and the need to protect it from the threats of overcrowding and unbridled concretization. Nature has spoken. Are we prepared to listen?
Rhea Kumar ’18 is in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.