Aid volunteers in flooded Kashmir Valley ask: Where is the Indian Army?

Volunteers from across India are traveling to the Kashmir Valley to join flood relief efforts. But they are finding a big difference between the official relief efforts shown on television, and what's happening on the ground.

Danish Ismail/Reuters
A Kashmir man pulls an inflatable raft carrying a boy through a flooded neighbourhood in Srinagar, Sept. 17, 2014. Both the Indian and Pakistani sides of the disputed Himalayan region have seen extensive flooding this month with Srinagar particularly hard hit. Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands are homeless.

When Mohammad Muneem, a singer and songwriter in southwestern India saw images on television of the flooded Kashmir Valley, he panicked.

Mr. Muneem's family lives in Srinagar, the capital of India-administered Kashmir, and he'd seen shots of water rising close to the neighborhood where his parents live. His parents were alone at home and he had lost communication. He flew to Srinagar the next day, catching a flight to the still-dry regional airport.

Dozens of volunteers from New Delhi and elsewhere in India have traveled to the Kashmir Valley in the past week to join flood relief efforts, spurred by concern for family members or images of destruction on television. 

Massive floods last week devastated the valley, submerging Srinagar for the first time in 60 years. Nearly 203 people have died from the floods so far and around 600,000 people are trapped in the upper levels of their houses, according to Indian media reports. Thousands more are homeless, living in makeshift tents and community relief camps. 

Volunteers are evacuating people, assisting medical teams, and transporting relief supplies. Among them, many feel purposeful, but also angry that the images they saw on television of a robust Indian Army rescue operation are far from what they say is happening on the ground. 

“We watched the news and there was the Army. When we reached here, it was panic due to no supplies or drinking water," says Qazi Zaid, a Kashmiri student who returned home from New Delhi after he saw the flood on TV. 

Residents of Kashmir have a long and fraught relationship with the government of India. Many in the Himalayan region, which is divided between India and Pakistan, advocate for independence and the Indian government maintains a heavy security presence in the valley. 

Mr. Zaid left New Delhi for Kashmir with three friends on the second day of the floods. They brought donations they had collected from fellow students and helped distribute clothes, food, and drinking water. [Editor's note: The original version of the story misstated who sent aid.]

Now, Zaid finds himself overseeing a team of 40 volunteers living in a school in Srinagar. He's most proud that his group rescued over 100 people using nine boats they were able to round up. 

Army operation 'Herculean'

As the Army started rescuing people, the Indian news channels broadcast pictures of the operation, dubbing it mission "Herculean." 

People who returned to Kashmir say they find a major difference between the news channels’ broadcasts and the situation on the ground. “The media is trying to clean the Army’s image,” says Zaid, adding that those he talks to say that no one came to their help.

The Indian Army says it has rescued around 149,000 people and air-lifted out another 2,800 from the affected areas, and provided handwritten lists of the names of some of those saved.

Even if those numbers are accurate, there's still daunting work to be done. Srinagar alone has a population of around 1 million and about 80 percent of the city was inundated. The state government has been unable to provide any major relief, sparking anger among the people. 

Muneem, the singer, says that when he returned home, he saw "a lot of chaos and people were running around. I went home and took my parents to a safer place. My mother was shocked to see me and started crying."

After helping his parents, he stayed to join others in rescue teams. “The government is nowhere. On TV they are showing the Army only, but wherever we went there was no Army. It makes me angry when the media is showing that the Army did everything,” he says. 

Muneem is planning on organizing free concerts to raise money for flood survivors, but he's concerned that the passion to serve others is dying out now, as people focus on their own families.

Gurmeet Singh, a volunteer at another relief camp in Srinagar, says that there is still much to be done. “Roads have been swept away. Houses have collapsed. At various places we have found people without food for days as no one had reached there."

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