Dredge the Jhelum, please!
No action, only words
Last year Kashmir witnessed the worst flood of the century. It was a unique combination of the monsoons and a very strong western disturbance which poured tons of water on our mountains and the plains. There was also a quick melt of the glaciers. The amount of water running down our mountains was beyond the capacity of the river and it came down virtually as a sheet of water. However, one other important factor for spilling over the embankments and for dozens of breaches was the silting of the river bed and its spill over channel. These had not been dredged for decades. In addition no efforts had been made to strengthen the embankments along the route of the river through the city. In fact, the negligence on this part resulting in the disaster amounts to criminal negligence. It will, however, at the moment serve no purpose in dissecting the past mistakes. There is most urgent need for future action to prevent the repetition of the disaster.
One had expected that the first important task of the new government would be to take up measures for flood prevention after ensuring the rehabilitation of the flood affected. The rehabilitation process got stalled as the State Government did not get the funds it had projected to the Central Government on this account. There were many promises and false starts about an announcement being made in this regard by the Prime Minister but nothing materialised. Whatever rehabilitation happened, it was by individual efforts and through insurance companies.
However, the most important aspect of taking measures for prevention of similar occurrences in future remains in limbo. No one seems to be bothered. Dredging of the Jhelum and the spillover channel is the first step which must be taken up immediately. The present season with the lowest water level is the most suitable and appropriate time to undertake the job.
However, one needs someone like Hakim Suya about whom we used to read in our school books. Alas, we do not have someone like Avantivarman whose minister Hakim Suya was. In those days also Kashmiris were troubled by the floods and the whole valley was ravaged repeatedly. Hakim Suya under took massive steps for dredging of Jhelum and took other measures to relieve people of this menace of floods. It is said (proverbially, perhaps) that he took sacksful of gold coins and threw it into Jhelum and people jumped in to retrieve the coins thereby taking out all the mud and silt which had accumulated there.
The present government has to engage a resourceful national agency like the Hindustan Construction Corporation or ONGC on a turnkey basis to desilt the river and the channels on a war footing on a turnkey basis within a fixed time frame. They could even explore getting some multinational companies having some expertise in the job. A resourceful company could put a couple of hundred excavators and a similar number of trucks on the job round the clock. The effort could be funded even by the Asian Development Bank. The time limit for dredging is till spring when the first rains come in and the glaciers start melting. Usually destructive floods hit Kashmir always towards the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. The main reason for this is the fact that during early spring and summer the water has many channels to go around. People need water for their rice fields. However, at the end of the summer and early autumn all channels are closed as the rice crop ripens. The water has only one channel to move and that is the river. If it falls in excess, it always spills over its banks.
The other urgent requirement is to strengthen the river’s embankments especially along the capital city. These embankments have been grossly vandalised by encroachments which need to be removed. Even the Honourable High Court has castigated the Government in this regard. The weak points where breaches had occurred need to be strengthened with reinforced cement concrete walls. All along the river the embankments should be strengthened with piling. The flood spill over channel needs to be given the same treatment, dredging and strengthening of the embankments. One more thing which needs attention is the dewatering stations. The pumps of most of these stations are below embankment level and these were submerged during the flood. These should be placed on the embankment level or even slightly above it.
After having lived through a traumatic experience and come back to one’s home after a year and a half, one still gets nightmares! There is no guarantee that the tragedy may not recur! One can only implore the concerned to take immediate steps to initiate and complete the flood prevention measures on an accelerated pace. The Chief Minister has shown that he can exercise his prerogative if he wants to. This is the most important sector in which exercise of such a prerogative is needed. Let us hope he does it?