Tragedy of Errors
It was painful to watch the inaction of an insensitive bureaucracy in J&K
Maharaja Hari Singh was a dictator, an autocrat for whom the people were the subjects, not the masters of their destiny. However, during a flood in late 1920s, when Jhelum breached its banks in the night at Lal Chowk, where today there is Ahdoos Hotel, he rushed to the spot with all his convoy. A British officer on duty shouted at him to leave the spot lest he too is drowned. Hari Singh replied, “If Kashmir is saved let me be drowned. If I live and the Valley is swept, whom shall I rule?” He directed the blockade of the breach and got it plugged.
That was 1928. This is 2014. That was autocracy; this is democracy.
It was probably 4th September, 2014 that the Chief Secretary, J&K had convened a meeting via videoconference with all the Deputy Commissioners of Kashmir Valley regarding electoral reforms. Suddenly there was a mention of heavy rains all across, but every Deputy Commissioner vowed that they are geared up to meet the challenge. The next day they repeated this assurance to the Chief Minister as well.
But when waters rose, it swept not only the huge material assets but the assurances and credibility of these officers as well. Srinagar, the second oldest city of the country after Varanasi, was flooded and its roughly 10 lakh residents inundated, crying for help. There was nobody in government for a day or two. The scale and scope of the tragedy was huge.
On the third day, after the city was flooded, I made contacts with some of my colleagues, using the old courier means, but could not do much. A day later we somehow succeeded in managing contacts with an officer friend at Srinagar’s airbase, which had been converted into a relief centre cum headquarters of the state apparatus.
As I reached the Arjun lounge ( as the building is popularly called), I saw tens of helicopters and planes taking off and landing, of course with relief material, supplies and media persons from outside. Officers of airforce and army were busy with rescue and relief operations, so were a few senior officers of the state government.
The chief minister would come and hold meetings with civil and military brass. At one of the meetings, the chief minister was apprised about a food store in possession of FCI at Lethpora, Pulwama, whose storekeeper was not traceable. The CM directed the concerned DC to break the lock in presence of a magistrate and take out ration for onward distribution. I later learnt that it took the administration three days – three days in flood situation means a lot – to get a magistrate in whose presence the lock was opened.
We spent a couple of days at Srinagar airbase, brainstorming. But honestly nobody knew what is to be done. No plan, no direction. Though the Chief Minister tried to dilute the impression that the state machinery was doing nothing by addressing media repeatedly, but there was no support service to him from his own PR Department which seemed to have been literally devastated much before the floods.
Anyway, we shifted our base to Hariniwas, on the foothills of Shankracharya hills. We started from two satellite phones given by the army authorities.
Here too it was chaos all around. I could find no officer ready with details or logistic plans.
Anyhow the chief minister decided we should have two meetings daily to review the situation – a 9am meeting to chalk out strategy and another 7pm meeting to know what we had done in the day.
The emotive pun that comes into play at such occasions was missing.
At one of the meetings a senior official reports that such and such relief material has been received. The CM looks happy and directs that it should be distributed. This is about the morning meeting. In the evening, the same officer reported that whatever he had reported in the morning was what he called a ‘false alarm’. He had not crosschecked facts before reporting in the meeting.
It was probably the third day of government at Hari Niwas. It was a shiny morning but the ambience was desolate. A particular administrative secretary was yelling over phone to someone, saying a particular granary was being looted. It broke the calm and everyone became restless. People were not having rations to eat and air-droppings had stopped. On the previous evening, a concerned officer had assured the CM that he would push 50 trucks (means 10 thousand kilograms of rice) into the marooned city. But he could manage just around few hundred Kgs only.
Suddenly the chief secretary’s British accented voice broke my calculation. It’s all the handiwork of the local SP, he thundered. I now expected heads to roll. But nothing happened. Instead, in the evening meeting, the police chief came and defended his cop. It was business as usual again.
The previous day it was known that three Deputy Commissioners and the SP of a worst hit District had left their headquarters, looking for their families and friends in Srinagar. In any other state or system an axe would have fallen on them but Kashmir has its own and separate constitution.
During the day, there’s a phone call from the American embassy in New Delhi who wanted to talk to some ‘senior authority’ to know what they can do. The caller was directed to an IAS officer who thanked the caller, saying everything was ‘arranged’.
On 16th September, probably the finest brains of the state’s official machinery decided that they would open up the civil secretariat on 18th to show to the people that government exists. I enquired from one of my friends in the core team about the logic of this decision. He whispered it would instill confidence among the people. But how would we make it to the secretariat? He had no answers.
The D-day had come. The chief minister flagged off the JKTDC bus carrying the whole government to the civil secretariat. The chief secretary was occupying the front seat followed by the other senior officers. We boarded the bus wading through the waters of Sonwar and Batwara to finally cross the bypass. Every officer, young and old, was narrating his tales of courage and how he saved many lives (not what he did as the in-charge of a particular department during the crisis).
We reached Sanat Nagar traffic junction and the gear of the bus got stuck. Somehow the driver managed with the help from a couple of officers who physically pushed the bus from behind.
We crossed the junction.
After a few yards, smoke started coming out of the engine and the driver declared he can’t pull the engine; otherwise, the bus would catch fire.
We decided to leave the bus for fear of safety and decided to walk. What an irony of fate the entire top brass of J&K government, led by its chief secretary, were stranded for vehicle in front of the gate of separatist leader Sajjad Lone. Anyway, we walked past the patch and whoever from the so called common people would greet us, we felt as if he was doing so sarcastically, taunting us.
Finally, we managed to get a tempo driver to take us to Ram Bagh Bridge. I could visualise the samadhi of Maharaja Hari Singh mocking at us, saying, sons, you have not been able to manage this state as I used to. Just then my visual ambience broke with the announcement that the road had been blocked by locals who were protesting that the free ration announced by the government had not reached them. Panic gripped us.
We asked the driver to make a U turn. We decided to go via Batmaloo but then some colleagues suggested to go via Bemina to finally reach the secretariat road which was hugely inundated. Our bus couldn’t even reach the second gate as the waters there were raging. We finally made a retreat and bumped into the Assembly secretariat complex where we held the customary routine meeting before going back to our safe havens.
Bahut be aabaru ho kar terey koochay se hum niklay...
Not only a bad move indeed, it was an equally disastrous PR exercise for the Government which already had faced a miserable situation to project itself on the publicity canvas ever since the disaster struck, owing to the low calibre the officials manning the concerned Department possess. For the whole night I wondered: what was the fun of going to the secretariat when it had turned into a mini lake? What was the public good in it? Did anybody had a feel of the situation there? Did anybody have a route map? No. Nobody had.
Kashmir has a history of having some superb and dignified officers who made a mark. Peer Ghulam Hassan Shah and SAS Qadri, to name a few. But what I was witnessing was a bunch of yes-boss type dignified clerks devoid of any decisive manner or creative approach to solve problems. And many of them seemed quite blank on issues confronting people. An HoD, for example, was not knowing, off hand, the number of beneficiary families for supplies in his Department. All he was saying was that his records have been damaged.
The other day the officers (I mean the senior engineers) reported that water was not receding despite using pumps. These engineers were supposed to provide the solutions but here they were seeking advice on a petty technical matter!
On another day a central team led by a senior Union Minister came to Srinagar to assess the damage. The State Government had asked an officer (known for his backdoor push) to brief the Union Minister accordingly. When the Union Minister sought an appraisal of the situation, the officer was in demand but not in sight. He was searched here and there till his administrative secretary intervened to inform that the officer had gone to have lunch. Not far, but at Lalit’s Grand Palace!
The Union Minister, keeping his composure intact, told the officials to send the concerned officer to his office in Delhi for the briefing as he was getting late for the flight back to Delhi.
Earlier, the state sent a high level ministerial delegation to apprise the Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the gravity of the situation and intensity of the problem. Good move indeed. But see the homework they had done and the inputs their dignified clerks had given to them. The delegation, which comprised of a sharp minded Finance Minister, demanded declaring the floods as a national calamity, which in common parlance meant no intervention of insurance companies, exclusion of any profit making activity from the package and a mere general Rs. 75000 relief to each affected house owner as per NDRF norms. Nobody, it seems, had read the norms before making the submission. It later took the chief minister a visit to 7 Race Course Road to convince the centre not to declare it a national calamity but as a case of special relief package.
On the 13th or 14th day of the floods, the Financial Commissioner’s Department proudly announced in a newspaper that they have opened their office again. One might ask, where had they gone all these days? The waters had not touched even the gates of the Commissionery at Tanki Pora (where the office is located), probably fearing they would lose even whatever land rights they have to these patwaris. But there was nobody to ask, question, or seek explanation.
Thus act after act of this tragedy of errors plays out. And I continue to be hapless, a mute witness.
Coming back to Maharaja Hari Singh's comments, I would have preferred to be washed away by the recent floods, rather than go through the pain of watching the inaction of an insensitive bureaucracy in J&K.
(The author, an officer in the present government, wishes to remain anonymous)