JK in judicial fault line

The Election Commission’s announcement of elections to the Jammu &  Kashmir Assembly even as the Chief Minister was pleading for postponement in view of September’s natural calamity, and the  Supreme Court’s startling decision to intervene in the poll process  by seeking relaxation of the model code of conduct to facilitate  relief distribution, has given a new twist to the situation in the  state. Though the Prime Minister called the floods a ‘national  disaster’ during his visit to the valley, the Centre has refrained  from officially declaring the catastrophe as such, possibly because  of simultaneous floods in Assam, which complained of being ignored.

With  media focused on Kashmir valley and distant Assam, scant attention  was paid to Jammu province where eight districts were badly ravaged  by the flooding of the Tawi and Chenab rivers and countless nullahs.  Now, the Supreme Court has trained the spotlight squarely on the  flood victims and their need for prompt and equal relief, to be  followed by effective compensation and rehabilitation measures.

The crux of the  matter centres round the agency that will distribute the relief. The  Prime Minister sanctioned Rs 1000 crore relief after aerially  surveying the disaster on September 6 and Rs 745 crore when he  visited the valley on Diwali, October 23. But amidst grief over the  utter failure of the administration to handle rescue operations and  the anger of victims over no relief or inadequate relief, questions  are being asked if the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund should be the  nodal agency for distributing relief, or the State Disaster Response  Fund, whose work can be monitored and audited?

Given  the ignominious invisibility of the administration at the height of  the crisis, leaving an embarrassed Chief Minister to cope with the  help of the Indian armed forces and civilian volunteers who poured  into the state with heart-warming alacrity; given the fact that  relief distribution has been uneven and no official survey has been  conducted to assess the magnitude of the devastation, Mr Omar  Abdullah’s demand for Rs 44,000 crore relief package has raised  hackles in some quarters.

In  Jammu province, many question Mr Abdullah’s tweet that Srinagar  city was “the worst hit”. Pointing out that as per available  information, about 70 persons died in Kashmir valley as against 225  in Jammu province, they expressed dismay at being overlooked by Mr  Modi, though they appreciated the first visit by an Indian Prime  Minister to Siachen glacier. They fear that unless relief is  entrusted to a neutral, publicly accountable agency, it may be used  for political constituencies in the run-up to the polls.

The  unprecedented rains and floods between September 2 and 9 occurred  even as Jammu border villages faced fierce shelling from across the  international border. It is a mystery why the glaciers melted in  Kashmir, but rampant constructions over outlet channels built by the  erstwhile Maharaja caused the waters to rise 20 to 30 feet, causing a  catastrophe reminiscent of Mumbai in 2005. In Jammu, 12 modern  bridges including the new Tawi bridge were swept away; Maharaja Hari  Singh’s old bridge survived.

The  rains destroyed the crop in Udhampur district, forced schools to shut  down and swept nearly 70 bridges away. On September 6, a mudslide  buried Pancheri Sadal village, taking at least 70 lives as district  authorities failed to respond to pleas for a helicopter rescue.  There has been massive loss of property, including crops and cattle,  in Ramnagar, Reasi, Bhadarwah, Ramban, Kishtwar, RS Pura, Poonch,  Rampur-Pathankot, Samba (5 BSF chowkis were swept away).

In Naushera  (Rajouri), a wedding party was swept away on September 4; 52 bodies  were recovered but 14 are still trapped in the mud and despite an  assurance in the Supreme Court, the authorities failed to provide a  JCB machine to extract the bodies. Only Arnia and Bishnab towns could  be evacuated in time and about 15000 people saved.

In response to a  petition filed by the Panthers Party, the Supreme Court intervened on  September 12 and ordered the setting up of a 5-member committee to  examine the relief measures. It comprised Kashmir Bar Association  president; Jammu Bar Association president; a representative of the  Government of India; a representative of the state government; and  the senior-most registrar of the J&K High Court as convener.

Inexplicably, the  committee’s interim report (September 24) was not signed by the J&K  government representative; the Final report, due on October 31, was  not submitted till the time of writing. In its interim report, the  committee noted that free ration has not been distributed properly in  some districts, most notably Srinagar, Pulwama, Rajouri and Udhampur.  In several places victims complained of receiving rations from NGOs  only. With winter having arrived in Kashmir and fast approaching in  Jammu, there is urgent need for blankets and warm clothing for the  victims.

Survivors living in  tents and makeshift shelters need speedy rehabilitation. The poor  need access to free medicines and accessories. All victims need  psychiatric help and counselling to cope with post traumatic stress  disorder as many were stranded without food and aid for several days  before they could be rescued.

The Supreme Court  appointed committee recommended speedy assessment of the damage to  properties, particularly farm lands, standing paddy, vegetable and  fruit crops, and cattle, and distribution of ex-gratia relief in all  affected districts. It said municipal authorities must launch a  massive cleanliness and sanitization drive to make the affected  regions habitable and prevent the outbreak of diseases, with due  priority to immunization. It urged a ban on construction on the beds  of flood prone nullahs, rivers or adjacent areas, including the  laying of telecommunication cables on hilly roads as this promoted  erosion and was against the law.

Even as the apex  court awaits the committee’s final report, analysts wonder if it  was appropriate of the court to intervene with the Election  Commission once the poll was announced. But, having waded into this  murky water, the court should ensure that relief is entrusted to a  non-political agency and distributed equitably.

Amidst  this human tragedy, the ISI-backed Million March at London’s  Trafalgar Square on October 26 – aimed at making the UN take up the  Kashmir dispute – flopped miserably. Muslim youth from the occupied  territories of undivided Kashmir pelted ‘star speaker’ Bilawal  Bhutto with eggs, forcing him to flee under police cover! Even by the  standards of a cameo political debut, it was an anti-climax

First  published in
1. http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/edit/ensuring-an-equitable-distribution-of-relief.html
2. http://www.vijayvaani.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?aid=3381

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