India turns Kashmir flood disaster into PR stunt

Attempt by Indian authorities to take credit for relief effort has backfired
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Since Sept. 7, Indian-administered Kashmir has been dealing with the biggest and most ferocious floods in a century. With nearly 250 people dead and 600,000 thousand stranded, a sizzling summer turned into a disaster overnight.

Two weeks later, the crisis has not abated, and already the cost of the damage is estimated at close to $1 billion. Authorities admit they are overwhelmed. But India has shockingly not allowed any direct aid or assistance offered by major international disaster relief agencies, including the United Nations.

It might appear that India is attempting to accomplish a mammoth feat all on its own. But the truth is that the politics of aid in Kashmir is at work. India’s humanitarianism has been deployed to serve the interests of the Indian state at the expense of the masses of suffering civilians.

Absent government

As late as Sept. 17, tens of thousands of people were still stuck on roofs in the state capital, Srinagar, calling for help. Countless others have been lost in the deluge that washed away homes and wrecked entire parts of the spectacular old city.

Strangers have tied floating corpses to trees in a bid to render a final dignity. Hospitals have been rendered dysfunctional, forcing pregnant women to deliver on the street. There is a shortage of lifesaving medicines, clean water and supplies. The specter of disease looms large on all waddling knee deep through the flooded streets.

Communication has yet to be fully restored, making relief efforts inordinately difficult on the ground. For a people used to confronting heartache in a two-decade-long insurgency that has cost more than 70,000 lives, this is a trauma of different type: People are desperately awaiting news of loved ones who are still trapped.

The Jammu and Kashmir state government is nowhere to be seen. While officials received warnings from the state Flood Control Ministry in 2010 of “a major flood catastrophe in next five years” for which the ministry had “nothing in place to save the human lives and property,” steps were not taken to set up the necessary infrastructure to deal with such a crisis. Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, admitted as much, saying his government was caught off guard.

The Indian army, which has otherwise wreaked havoc in the region, is attempting to seize the stage as the saviors of the Kashmiri people.

In the face of an absent government, it has been locals — students, shopkeepers, doctors, teachers and journalists — at the forefront of rescue and relief efforts. Impromptu relief camps have been set up throughout Srinagar where food, clothing and medicine donated by neighbors are being distributed. On their own accord, youths have built makeshift rafts and organized inflatable boats from Delhi, venturing into hard-hit districts, hoping to provide relief to families still stranded in their homes. The Kashmir diaspora throughout the world has also responded, sending as many shipments as possible and coordinating awareness campaigns.

Despite such grass-roots efforts, organized international aid is desperately needed. By keeping international agencies at bay, the Indian state, army and commercial enterprises have positioned themselves as the sole saviors of the Kashmiri people in their plight — thus enforcing the narrative that Kashmir needs India and cannot survive without its support.

To be sure, the Indian army has played an important role in relief efforts, claiming to rescue about 100,000 people. But many have complained that the army has been prioritizing the families of those with political influence as well as tourists. A week has passed since the rains ended, and people here are furious with the speed of the rescue efforts.

Under these circumstances, then, the Indian army, which has otherwise wreaked havoc in this region, is attempting to seize the stage as the saviors of the Kashmiri people. Indian media — including LiveMint, Rediff and CNN IBN— have lost no opportunity to cover the efforts of their brave soldiers as they risk their lives, allowing the Indian and international public to see a politicized, one-sided story.

Three days into the disaster, seasoned journalist Burkha Dutt had the gall to ask if the rescue mission would be a turning point for the army in Kashmir on her show on NDTV, and a guest on TimesNow declared that the Indian army stands “vindicated” for the 60,000 thousand deaths in the valley mourned by those with an anti-Indian stance, because it has saved that number and more in the floods.

PR disaster

By not allowing international actors into Kashmir to assist, India controls the scope and pace of the rescue effort. But with relief moving slowly, Kashmiris blame the Indian government and the army more than ever before. The irony, then, is that India’s PR gambit to take credit for the rescue effort has backfired.

Beyond the scripts of journalists embedded with the army are the stories of locals fighting the flood currents and relating their experiences. The trumpeteering on the side for the army notwithstanding, Kashmiris are still desperately awaiting assistance.

As winter approaches, there is no way that Kashmiris will be able to rebuild their homes on their own or deal with a myriad of potential epidemics from excess water. World governments must pressure the Indian government to allow a sustained international relief effort to rescue those in trouble, manage the threat of public health epidemics and help rebuild from the disaster.

Hafsa Kanjwal is a Ph.D. candidate in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, focusing on contemporary Kashmiri history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.