Kashmir counts its losses after the floods

The floods in Kashmir have extensively damaged the health and communications infrastructure in the region, deepening fears of a health crisis
<p>Photo credit: EU/ECHO</p>

Photo credit: EU/ECHO


The worst floods in the recorded history of India’s Kashmir region have left behind a trail of destruction with the health and communications infrastructure devastated almost beyond repair and authorities struggling to get it back on track.

As the floodwaters recede, the extent of the damage is slowly becoming clear.  The destruction has been all pervasive, affecting agricultural land, homes and industry in the north India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. And the health and communications sectors in Kashmir valley are particularly hit.

Equipment worth millions of dollars lie in ruin with experts worried about getting the two sectors back in functioning mode. Fortunately, with temperatures already dipping in the Himalayan region as autumn sets in, doctors have ruled out chances of an epidemic.

The waters, which inundated over 90% of the state’s summer capital Srinagar and most parts of south Kashmir in just a few hours on the night of September 7, are yet to drain out from several parts of Srinagar city leaving people even more frustrated.


Health services

Four of the five top hospitals are yet to restore health services. Health authorities say most diagnostic equipment in the hospitals were destroyed or damaged by the floods which submerged the first floors of the buildings.

Senior doctors who work in these hospitals said on the condition of anonymity that the loss could be as high as $80 million. Expensive, life-saving and necessary equipment like X-ray and oxygen plants, CT scan machines and MRI machines have suffered massive damage or have been completely destroyed.  Apart from this, laboratories have suffered enormous loss and power supplies have been hit.

State Health Minister Taj Mohi-u-Din said medical facilities had suffered massive damage and estimated the loss to machinery at US$16 million.

“Given the amount of muck and slit deposited on the floors and the gadgets, cleaning the hospitals is a major challenge,” he said.

Disinfecting hospitals, Mohi-u-Din added, was also a big challenge. “Only three days are left out of the deadline of 10 days which I had set for cleaning the hospitals, but let us see where we reach.”

He said emergency services in these hospitals would start over the weekend while outpatient services had already started in two hospitals.

The ground reality appeared quite different. Spot visits to these hospitals revealed that the assessment work has not begun; cleaning operations too had begun late.

“The response was quite slow post the disaster and absolutely absent when the disaster was shaping up,” said a young doctor at one of the hospitals requesting anonymity.

“We had ample time to save the vital equipment… why did our administration relax? And when all the damage took place, why did our administration react so slowly,” he asked.

Doctors and paramedical staff said inpatient services needed to be restored on a war-footing. “Currently there are many medical relief camps operational in the city to deal with the outpatients. We need to restore inpatient services as quickly as possible,” said Dr Javid Iqbal of the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital.

Government officials appeared quite clueless about when services could be restored.

Health experts are questioning the level of care the hospitals can offer.

“How can we treat people without the support of diagnostic tools?” asked a senior doctor.

Srinagar’s hospitals, he said, cater to about six million people with district hospitals not equipped for tertiary care. “There are no proper facilities like ventilators, incubators, oxygen plants and diagnostic gadgets in the district hospitals.”

Given this situation, he said the pressure is bound to mount on the Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Soura, and the Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial Hospital (JLNM), the two functioning hospitals in Srinagar.

Many patients who had been rescued from other hospitals when the waters came in were taken to SKIMS and JLNM. Routine surgeries at both these hospitals have been put on hold. Khatoon Begum’s son, who suffers from a neurological problem, is one of those left weeping in desperation.

“Must my son be sacrificed because of the floods? Please do something,” the mother, who has already lost one son to a similar condition, begged the authorities.

Similar scenes played out elsewhere with patients being asked to wait until the crisis passed.  As the queues grew longer, there were hundreds of people waiting for appointments with doctors.

The situation is equally overwhelming at relief camps. There is no one coordinating organisation so it is difficult to work out the exact numbers of people being treated. But it is in the many thousands. Zahoor Ahmad, organiser of the medical camp at Zainakote, for instance, said that over 5,000 patients had been treated at his camp in 12 days.

Epidemic fears subside

The one silver lining in this is that doctors have ruled out chances of epidemic given the onset of autumn. “Morning and night temperatures are dipping with the onset of autumn which means there is [less chance] for disease causing organisms to flourish in the aftermath of floods,” said Dr Mohammad Iqbal, head of the JLNM.

Dr Aijaz, a consultant at a relief camp, said patients were coming with respiratory problems and skin ailments.  “Most of these patients already had a background of respiratory diseases. The post flood situation and the unhygienic conditions are causing more problems for them and infecting some normal people as well,” the doctor said. “Similarly, people are reporting skin rashes and allergies after walking through the floodwaters.”

A doctor examining a patient at a free medical camp
A doctor examines a patient at a free medical camp

Given the magnitude of the work involved, hundreds of students and activists who played a pivotal role in the rescue operations have now come forward to help in the clean-up process. Talim Mustaq, who was heading a team of 60 volunteers, for instance, said they would be at the job till all the hospitals were declared sanitised.

State Disaster Response Force personnel were doing their bit too. However, the job could not be completed until water supply was restored.

Irate over the time being taken, residents have taken to the streets to protest the lack of essential commodities like water, electricity and food. They are also protesting the time being taken to ‘dewater’ their localities and to remove the carcasses of animals in the city.

As criticism against the Omar Abdullah-led government mounted, former chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad said some officials had been seen at the Srinagar airport leaving the city along with their families.

“The government’s response to the Kashmir floods is quite reflective of the fact how poorly disasters or post disaster relief and rehabilitation operations are carried out in India,” Suhail Masoodi, who recently received a doctorate in public policy from the China Agricultural University, told


Communications down

With water receding in most areas and landslides being cleared along the Jammu-Srinagar national highway, roads have largely been repaired – though people still have to use boats and wade through thigh-deep waters in some parts of Srinagar. However, telecommunications has been hit.

With infrastructure damaged, various service providers, including the government owned Bharat Sanchar Nigham Limited (BSNL), have been unable to restore communications.  Telephonic and internet communication is down except in some areas where calls are being routed via Jammu.

BSNL authorities claim 50% of its network has been restored. However, an official document, which got access to, says the network will take at least another 15 days to get restored.

The company has a virtual monopoly on landline and broadband connections in Kashmir while the cell-phone customer base is shared by various service providers.

“It is a pity that these companies left us high and dry in times of great need,” said Lateef Ahmed who was able to contact his marooned family only after 12 days.

People have praised the local station of the state-run All India Radio (AIR), which remained off air for a week but resumed services thereafter from a makeshift studio at Shankaracharya hill where one of its transmitters is installed.

Syed Himayoun Kaiser, a popular broadcaster who was amongst the first to get to the hill, said it was time for people like him to rise to the occasion. “If we say that radio is a powerful medium, this was the time for us to prove it to the people who were desperate to have some information about their loved ones and other parts of the valley,” he said.