Modi’s slogan acchhe din aane wale hain (better days are about to come) that helped him and his party win the election has no doubt turned bitter for the flood-ravaged residents of Jammu and Kashmir. Almost 300 are reported to have died and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless and are living in flimsy makeshift shelters without adequate supply of food or water.


In the accompanying report that describes the conditions in which the survivors are living, one noteworthy fact is that medical services that are so essential at this time have basically collapsed in many areas.


The state government seems to have been rendered completely helpless by the events, unable to mount any effort to protect the people from the rising waters that flooded whole neighborhoods or to conduct any kind of relief operations to provide support to the sick and homeless. Ironically, it was the Indian Army that is seen mostly as an occupation force by many people in Kashmir Valley, which was able to carry out some rescue operations even in a limited way.  However, in a bizarre response, sections of the Indian media rushed to Srinagar apparently to show the Army winning the hearts of the locals through the rescue efforts. With their camera crews taking up precious space on boats that could have been better used to carry marooned flood victims clinging to trees and rooftops, the publicity hungry talking heads were seen shoving microphones in the faces of exhausted and terrified people to score a propaganda scoop; by trying to elicit words of praise for an army widely viewed as an oppressive force by a whole generation of Kashmiris.  When they did not get what they wanted they were predictably reduced to blaming the flood victims as ungrateful.


The root causes of flood disasters in the Himalayan belt that extends from northern Pakistan in the west to Nepal and northeast India in the east have been known for quite some time now.  Massive deforestation and erosion of hillsides has considerably reduced the ability of the slopes to retain rainwater.  This has been exacerbated by poor building practices that have blocked natural drainage areas leading to accumulation of water and flooding after heavy rainfall.


In cases like Srinagar, overbuilding in low-lying areas and encroachments on marshes and lakes makes the residents extremely vulnerable to overflows from the Jhelum River that flows through the heart of the city. A scholarly article in the Journal of Environmental Protection by two geographers of Aligarh Muslim University, Shahab Fazal and Arshad Amin, published three years ago, pointed out the harmful impacts of haphazard building practices, increased pollution and lack of urban planning on the water bodies adjoining the city, like Dal and Nageen lakes, that used to act as a natural “sponge and take in water, preventing its spill in low-lying areas of the city.” They documented the progressive loss and shrinkage of the water bodies over the last 40 years which has resulted in “higher and increased incidence of floods and water logging especially in the rainy season.”


This problem is present in all South Asian cities.  Writing in the newspaper Dawn of September 23, 2014, about the recent flood in Lahore, journalist Adnan Adil says “In intense rains, the city’s dilapidated and inadequate sewerage pipes get choked and overflow, flooding the city. Leave alone making new drainage channels for rainwater, even the old nullahs for this purpose have either been converted into sewage outlets or encroached upon.”  He goes on to comment that while “Flooding in Lahore can be prevented” by improving drainage of storm water, “The issue is not shortage of funds but the misplaced priorities of the rulers whose imagination stops at motorways and flyovers.” This can be said about any city in South Asia.


This neglect of environmental planning is being made much worse in recent years by the malign face of Hindutva politics.  Many of the shrines that evoke a response from devout Hindus are located in the high mountains of the Himalayas.  The Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines in Uttarakhand and the Amarnath shrine in Kashmir are well known examples.  In years past, a few rishis and munis would reside in these areas and a handful of hardy pilgrims would make the difficult trek to the shrine.   Modern technology and socio-political developments encouraging mass religious tourism are putting pressure on the fragile high-altitude environment which it cannot withstand. Last year witnessed devastating floods that killed thousands in Uttarakhand; pilgrims to Kedarnath were particularly hard hit. This was also seen earlier in the case of the Amarnath cave located in India’s only Muslim majority state where the politically sanctioned increase in the number of pilgrims is having highly deleterious impacts.


Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of extreme weather events like intense rainfall, hurricanes, and severe storms.  The combination of these trends does not augur well for the populations of South Asia. Writing in the Sept. 30 issue of the magazine Down to Earth of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, the environmentalist Sunita Narain remarks “Now when it rains heavily—and with greater frequency and intensity because of climate change—the water has nowhere to go. Flood and devastation are inevitable. All this makes for a double whammy. On the one hand, we are mismanaging our water resources, thus, intensifying floods and droughts. On the other hand, climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, making the country even more vulnerable.”


With BJP government’s single minded focus on “development” and its backpedalling on environmental regulation, it is difficult to see how “acchhe din” are going to dawn either for the country or the subcontinent as a whole.

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