My Visit to Quake-Affected Villages in Kashmir
Early this week I, along with two friends of mine from Delhi, left for Srinagar to visit some of the areas affected by the recent earthquake. We first went to Tangdhar, a six-hour journey from Srinagar via Sopore and Kupwara. Tangdhar is located in the Karnah tehsil of the Kupwara district. It is a mountainous area straddling the Line of Control that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir.
There are 42 villages in the Karnah tehsil and most of them have been totally destroyed in the quake. Between 350 to 400 people here lost their lives, and thousands have been badly injured. The number of people rendered homeless by the quake in this region is estimated at more than 50 thousand. The area still trembles with aftershock tremors being felt every day. Most houses in the area have collapsed into heaps of rubble, and the few that are left standing are not usable since they have developed dangerous cracks and can easily crumble once the snows start. Consequently, almost all the people in the villages here are now staying in tents and make-shift shelters made of tin sheets and logs. They have lost almost all their personal possessions, stocks of food and domestic animals. Almost all shops and schools in the area have been destroyed. Roads and paths leading to many villages off the main highway have also been blocked, being covered with massive boulders. Fields have developed deep craters and cracks and, consequently, can no longer be used for paddy cultivation, and irrigation channels leading to the fields have been clogged.
After spending two days in Tangdhar we returned to Srinagar and then went on to Uri and villages beyond, in the Baramulla district. The situation in this area is as stark as in Karnah. All the villages have been completely flattened, with almost every single building destroyed. More than 1000 people are said to have lost their lives in this area in the quake. Almost all families living here have been rendered homeless.
Government Relief: Although the government has announced that it has provided relief to the affected people, we heard numerous complaints in all the villages we visited from people who said that they had received nothing at all or else just a pittance. For each person killed in the quake affected families have received a sum of Rs. 50,000 only. The government has announced that it is supplying each person with a single, one-month ration of 11 kilograms of rice, 700 grams of sugar, as well as tea leaves, cooking oil and kerosene. Although some villagers have received the rice and the sugar, we met many others who said that they had got nothing at all. All the people we met said that tea leaves, kerosene and cooking oil have not reached the villages as yet, more than two weeks after the quake. In the three days that we spent in the Tangdhar and Uri region we did not see any vehicles of the civil administration transporting any relief material. We heard numerous allegations of large scale corruption in the distribution of the relief and accusations of local level officials misappropriating relief funds and material. We were also told of the politicisation of relief, with different political parties (Congress, Peoples Democratic Party and National Conference) being said to be providing relief to their own supporters and vote-banks.
People we met insisted that the one month ration that the government has announced is grossly insufficient to help them tide over the long winter that has already begun and which will last till next April. All the food and grains that they had stored for the winter have been destroyed and they need supply of grains and other food articles for at least four to five months. Winters in this area are severe, and in many villages the temperature falls below minus 15 degrees Celsius and snowfall of six feet and more is common.
The government has also announced a paltry sum of Rs. 100,000, to be payable in two instalments (of Rs. 40,000 and Rs. 60,000) for rebuilding of each house. The process of distributing this money has only just begun, and few people seem to have received this money as yet. People complain that this amount is too little, and is not even enough to hire labour to remove the rubble and to purchase and transport material to build temporary shelters for this winter, let alone for reconstructing their homes. They want that the amount be substantially increased and also insist that it should be paid in one instalment. Receiving it in two instalments, as many of them argue, would mean that they might have to bribe the local officials twice, instead of once.
The Army has played an impressive role in the relief work at some places, particularly immediately after the quake, transporting victims to hospitals, and providing relief material and medical assistance. It has also distributed tents, particularly to families that have members working in the army [Both in the Tangdhar and Uri sectors, there are several locals working in the Indian Army. The locals are mainly Punjabi-/Pahari-speaking Muslims and there is hardly any support among them for the ongoing militant movement in Kashmir. Many Army officials I met stressed this point]. However, it is clear that the role that the army can continue to play in relief work is strictly limited now, its prime responsibility being on the borders.
NGO Relief: We noticed that relatively few NGOs are involved in providing relief in the aftermath of the quake, particularly in the Tangdhar area. One reason could probably be the extremely difficult terrain, and the long distance from Srinagar. Yet, I personally could not help notice the distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of Indian civil society, including NGOs and corporate houses, to respond to the quake when compared with their role in providing relief in the wake of the quake in Kutch or in the recent Tsunami. However, we did see some NGOs from the Kashmir Valley, a few larger Indian NGOs as well as some Christian and Muslim organisations from other parts of India helping in providing relief.
While people welcomed the relief that these NGOs were providing, we heard numerous complaints. We were told that there is no proper co-ordination between the different groups working in the area. No one seems to have any idea of which NGOs are active in the region. Consequently, there is much duplication of effort. Many of the same villages are visited by different NGOs and many others by none at all, and so while some people get relief material from several organisations others get nothing.
People also complain that many NGOs visit villages that are located on the main road, leaving out villages that are high up in the mountains. We met numerous people who had trekked from remote villages several kilometres to Tangdhar and other villages on the main road in the hope of getting some food or clothing from passing relief vehicles. We were also told that many NGOs provide their relief material without any planning at all, so that the more powerful or influential people get much more while the poor and the infirm get nothing. There have also been several cases of relief trucks being looted.
In several villages we noticed large piles of clothes supplied by relief organisations thrown around. In some places people were using them to light bonfires to keep themselves warm. We were told that these clothes were torn or culturally unsuitable. We heard that some NGOs providing these clothes simply throw them in front of crowds of waiting people, who scramble to pick up the best clothes, leaving behind what are simply unusable. We also heard of an NGO distributing thousands of bottles of mineral water to the people, although drinking water is easily available here from mountain streams. People told us that instead of wasting money on such items, relief organisations should send material of immediate use to the people, such as blankets, jackets, coats, socks and shoes, and that these should be in good condition. Most importantly, they said, what they need is tin sheets to build temporary shelters to tide over the severe winter that awaits them. NGOs, they said, could either supply them with tin sheets or else provide them with money to purchase these.
Locals who can afford to do so, especially government servants, might be able to escape the harsh oncoming winter by shifting out of the area, but the poor, mainly small peasants, will be unable to do so. The situation is particularly grim in Tangdhar and other parts of the Karnah tehsil, where relatively few NGOs are working. The 10417-feet high Sadhna Pass, connecting the Karnah valley to the rest of Kashmir will soon be blocked by heavy snow (last year it received a record 16 feet of snow), making it almost impossible (as well as prohibitively expensive) to transport food and other essential commodities from outside. Exposed to the harsh cold and heavy snow, and given that all their stocks of food have been destroyed, it is possible that people here will face death in numbers far larger than those lost in the quake itself unless the urgent issue of temporary shelters suitable to survive the oncoming winter as well as adequate rations is immediately addressed. These are two issues that NGOs should particularly focus on now.
We have decided to work in two villages in the Tangdhar area: Parada and the neighbouring village of Chhatkadi. These are located at a distance of some 8 kilometres off the main road from Tangdhar. The tarred road that connects the villages to Tangdhar has been covered with rubble and is now motorable only till the Pandu Bridge that spans a deep gorge through which the Kazi Nag river flows. From the bridge it is a tough one-hour walk up a steep mountain path. Parada is the last village before the barbed-wire fence set up by the Indian Army just behind the Line of Control. Chhatkadi is located beyond the fence and half of the village is in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the two parts of the village being separated by a narrow stream. Parada has around 200 houses and Chhatkadi 18, all of which have been destroyed.
We had taken some relief material with us, which we distributed in Parada. We were fortunate to have with us a committed young man from this village, Muhammad Fareed, who is presently studying in a college in Srinagar. Fareed arranged for the distribution of the modest amount of material that we had brought with us. We have now despatched some boxes of warm clothes as well as a consignment of 180 blankets from Delhi, which Fareed, along with an informal committee of village elders of Parada and Chhatkadi and some associates of ours from an NGO in Kashmir will distribute. We are now in the process of collecting money to arrange for the purchase of tin sheets for constructing temporary shelters for the 220-odd families living in these two villages.
What You Can Do:
At the moment the most urgent need of thousands of families in the Tangdhar and Uri areas is suitable temporary shelters to help survive the harsh winter snows that are due in two weeksҒ time. People can no longer continue living in the tents and shacks that they have set up, and it is feared that unless they are able to make suitable temporary shelters (of tin sheets and wood) many of them, especially children, face a certain death. Further, people are also in desperate need of adequate stocks of food grain. In the course of this visit I came across two Kashmir-based NGOs that are known for their sincerity and dedication, and which are also actively involved in providing relief to the victims of the earthquake. I would urge you to directly send them your contribution in the form of money through which they can purchase relief material and food supplies. Their details are as follows:
Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Trust
Director, Mr. A.R. Hanjoora
Opposite Fire Service Station
The cheque can be made out in the name of Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Trust. The organisation is working in the Tangdhar area.
Human Aid Society
Chairman, Bashir A. Mir
Near Mini Bus Stand
Opposite New Cement Bridge
ph:  01952-238017 [r]: 01952-257298
Some NGOs from Kashmir and outside have got together to set up the Central Relief Coordination Committee for the Karnah Tehsil. Have a look at their website on http://www.kashmirquakerelief.org