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Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minsiter Omar Abdullah in an exclusive interview, tells how his government is dealing with the aftermath of the devastating floods that hit the State earlier this month.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah spoke to The Hindu in an exclusive interview, on how his government is dealing with the situation that prevails after the devastating floods hit the state earlier this month.
Q: After the floods, where are we standing now in terms of recovery and reconstruction? How distant are we from what you would call normal?
Omar: Obviously, we are far away from what anyone would call normal. There are still areas here where removal of water is posing challenges because they are traditionally low lying areas. So that still remains a major priority of ours.
After that, cleaning up the city is a major area of concern to prevent an outbreak of disease. A lot of work was done in terms of removal of animal carcasses.
Ordinarily, before the floods, the municipality would lift around 250 metric tones of garbage from the streets of Srinagar everyday, today we are lifting 600 metric tones of garbage.
While every sector has been hit hard, our biggest setback is the heath sector. If you look at the SMHS hospital, conservative estimates would suggest that we have lost equipment of more than worth 250 – 300 crores. Most of my diagnostic equipment that was on the ground floor is probably beyond use. So CT Scans, MRI’s, absolutely brand new ophthalmological equipment, you name it and it is gone.
By conservative estimates, the police department has lost around 250–300 crores worth of equipment, supplies, uniforms. Our standing crop has been largely destroyed, the apple crops have suffered, and thousands of houses have been destroyed.
So at this point in time while we are looking at our reconstruction plan, we haven’t started reconstructing.
Q: So how are you organizing this massive operation? Within the government do you have any new structures?
A: We had put an officer in charge of the relief but relief has now officially gone down. There is very little relief, if any, that is coming officially from the Government of India to Kashmir and therefore these special relief commissioners, we felt, were no longer necessary. Now I also found that beyond a point it added to the confusion than solving it because a lot of buck-passing starts.
So it is better to make the parent departments responsible for their own areas of responsibility. There is no point in putting an officer in charge of city cleanliness when that is primarily the municipality’s job. So the special dispensations that we had created have largely been set aside now.
Q: When you are looking at rebuilding, what will be your priority areas?
A: Fortunately, unlike an earthquake where there is so much physical damage to structures, there is not going to as much ‘rebuilding’ in the traditional sense of the word. More than 20000 pukka houses have been damaged and the number is going to increase as the water recedes. Assistance to people whose houses have been damaged will have to be there. For us, rebuilding is to revive our various schemes: water supply scheme, electricity supply, revival of hospitals. We are making some rudimentary starts in this regard.
In that sense reconstruction has started.
Q: How long will the procurements of machines and other infrastructure take?
A: There is a provision of emergency procurement in disasters but even then there is some procedure. I can’t just randomly go out and buy equipment because at the end of the day, all these numbers will be audited and I should be able to explain how it is done. We will shorten the duration and put to use these procurement procedures, but some amount of diligence will have to be there.
Q: So the situation being such, have you informed or requested the PM or the Election Commission to defer the upcoming elections?
A: I have not. It would seem like I am power hungry. I have not focused on elections at all in these weeks and, to be honest, I have no space in my mind to think about the elections. But I have not spoken to the EC and I am not going to make any formal recommendations for delaying the elections for the simple reason that I don’t want anybody to think that I want to continue to sit in this chair. It is for the EC to gauge whether is it the appropriate time to hold the elections or not.
ECI doesn’t talk to us. They talk to officials. If the opinion of National Conference as a political party is sought, the party will give its opinion but otherwise formally, the EC doesn’t ask me. They will ask the State Election Commissioner, they will ask the Director General of the Police, and of course the Governor. They will try to free this decision as much from political interference as possible, and fair enough.
The decision for the elections has to be taken by the EC and when they ask me for my opinion, I will tell them.
Q: So when you met the PM, this topic did not come up at all?
A: No. But I have no doubt that consultations with various stake holders, particularly the Intelligence agencies and the Home Ministry are going on but I have not been and I don’t expect to be asked what my point of view is, as the Chief Minister.
Q: As a CM, you have an idea of the task ahead. How much time it will take for a semblance of normalcy for the state machinery to be available for a different purpose? What would be the time frame you have in mind?
A: I would be amazed if we are not still doing a large part of this work in the spring of next year. Damages need to be assessed and we are in the process of finalizing a memorandum, which then needs to be submitted to GoI, who will then discuss the memorandum with us and arrive an appropriate figure of relief, then announce it and then the State government is tasked with distributing that.
The distribution is carried out largely by the Revenue Department (supplemented by other departments), which by coincidence are the same people who would be organizing the elections. The same Government officials who are currently tasked with relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction will then be tasked with election work.
Q: How long will this work take by a conservative estimate?
A: We are definitely talking in months, not days and weeks. Twenty thousand houses have been partially or fully damaged and the numbers are likely to go up. There are losses of crops, of agricultural land. There is damage not only in Srinagar but also in south and north Kashmir. There is damage in Poonch, Rajouri, which have been very hard hit.
Those who say that it was a two-district flood are actually underestimating the scale of the problem.
Q: The publicity around the rescue and relief operations by the Army, has that complicated the politics of Kashmir and generated a reaction among the people?
A: I think there was too much effort to publicize the rescue and relief. Perhaps, with hindsight, we could have done with less of it. People saw rescue operations as a publicity stunt when every rescue boat had a camera crew on it and every rescued person had a microphone stuck in their face. At the end of the day, these boats were to pull people out and not to carry media people into areas from where people were being rescued.
People in Srinagar are angrier with the media than with us politicians.
Q: You have been accused of incompetence by your opponents.
A: Politics is politics and we may like to believe that national interest or natural disaster is above politics but it is not. But some have done a good job, let’s admit, including the separatists, in terms of organizing relief camps and helping out people. They have done a good job and hats off to them.
Q: There has been a lot of illegal construction in the low-lying areas, along the embankments of the flood channels and in the agricultural land, and people say that those belts are the vote banks for National Conference. Will this flood change the way illegal colonies function in the valley?
A: We are not going to relocate the colonies. Let’s face it. I cannot rehabilitate entire colonies in Srinagar. These colonies are not the product of last five years. What we need to do is to more effectively manage our flood control mechanisms.
From: The Hindu