Kashmir braces for another flood as questions emerge over money meant for Jhelum desilting project
After the 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre has sanctioned Rs 399 crore to desilt and dredge the Jhelum river.
To prevent a catastrophic flood like the 2014 deluge in Jammu and Kashmir, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre had approved a Rs 399-crore project to desilt and dredge the Jhelum river and expand its flood spill channel to raise its water capacity. Now, with another flood staring at the Valley, there is one question on people's minds — where did the money go?
Echoing the thoughts of residents, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah has asked a few pertinent question on Twitter: "What was the PDP-BJP government doing after the devastating floods of 2014? What happened to the dredging of the Jhelum? Why was the carrying capacity of the flood channel not increased? Where did the money go?"
There is anger brewing against politicians as over the weekend, three people died in rain-related incidents. The latest floods have left many of the low-lying areas marooned. Even though rainfall subsided in the state on Sunday and the water level in the Valley's main river, Jhelum, and its tributaries receded, people still fear the possibility of a flood as the meteorological department has predicted more showers this week.
"How corrupt can the politicians of this state be?" said Majid Ahmad Akhoon, a lawyer and resident of Srinagar's Kursu Rajbah. His house was inundated on Saturday. "An improvement in the flood mitigation and irrigation mechanism could have prevented this kind of water-logging. Who swindled hundreds of crores? Can they explain what they did with the money provided by the Centre?"
On 7 September, 2014, the water level in the Jhelum broke all records — crossing 33 feet in Sangam in South Kashmir's Anantnag and 23 feet in Ram Munshi Bagh in Srinagar — leading to devastating floods in the Valley.
For nearly 30 years, the Jhelum and its outflow channel had not been dredged, drastically reducing its carrying capacity from 17,000 cusecs to 3,531 cusecs. A government panel had suggested that the topography of the Valley made it prone to disastrous floods, in addition to the river's reduced carrying capacity and shrunken flood spill channel.
After the 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir, the Narendra Modi government had sanctioned a Rs 8,000-crore flood relief package for the state. This was after the then state finance minister, Haseeb Drabu, submitted a proposal seeking Rs 44,000 crore from the Centre to build flood management infrastructure and to rehabilitate victims. The money was sanctioned under the Prime Minister's Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Programme 2015.
At that time, Rs 399.29 crore was also sanctioned under a Comprehensive Plan for Flood Management Works on the Jhelum. Of this amount, Rs 140 crore was set aside for land acquisition to expand the flood channels, Rs 40 crore was allocated to build two bridges, and the remaining was meant for dredging the Jhelum. The government, finally, began dredging the river in February 2016, aiming to increase the carrying capacity of the Jhelum to 45,000 cusecs.
Kolkata-based private firm Reach Dredging Ltd — contracted for the project in March 2016 — halted the dredging work in April 2017, demanding more money for the job, but the state government had rejected the demand. The firm was supposed to dredge the 25-kilometre stretch of the river from Pantha Chowk to Wular Lake in Srinagar by 31 March this year.
Naeem Akhtar, a former minister in the PDP-BJP government, said that the Valley is now vulnerable to floods because the higher slopes were dug up and the soil used to fill up the flood basins, which changed the architecture and topography of the region. For example, successive governments filled a flood basin in Bemina, which used to be marshy land known for hunting.
He also said that Kashmir will be soon be in a position where it cannot sustain 24 hours of rain, and that in the future, low-lying areas of Srinagar will not be able to handle even two days of rain because you cannot stop siltation. "Dredging or desilting will not help until and unless the flood channels are freed of illegal constructions," Akhtar said, adding that the state government will have to adopt a deforestation policy to bring about change.
Corruption and suspicious figures
Sources claim that the money sanctioned to the state was bungled, and that politicians and bureaucrats had pocketed it. Also, while desilting the Jhelum, Reach Dredging extracted sand from the banks and sold it in the open market, instead of paying the government. Sources said a few politicians bagged this money, and it did not reach the state's coffers. The private company has refused to comment on the allegation.
Over the weekend, as incessant rain lashed the Valley, the Jhelum broke its banks and flooded several houses. Hundreds of residents kept tabs on the bridges and the river's banks in Srinagar to gauge its water level. Many had already shifted their belongings to higher floors of their houses.
The desilting and dredging project was approved when the state was under Governor's Rule under NN Vohra in 2016. While the company was supposed to complete the work in a year according to the terms and conditions of the contract, the reality is far from it. With the deadline long passed and the project still incomplete, experts now allege that the company carried out the dredging unscientifically.
"Till mid-March, the company had dredged only 5.75 cubic meters in Srinagar against the target of 7 lakh cubic meters," said MM Shanawaz Ahmad, chief engineer of flood and irrigation control. He added that the dredging, which was 10 percent of the work, was almost complete. "Rs 281 crore was allocated for the flood spill channels, including land acquisitions, and 70 to 80 percent of the land acquisitions have been completed."
However, no one believes these figures. As Srinagar bore the brunt of the 2014 floods, when homes on both sides of the Jhelum remained under water for several weeks, people look at official explanations with suspicion.
It is even more worrying that wetlands, basins and spillways have been encroached upon, and the government has been apathetic to the constructions that have come up. Some reports also suggest that Srinagar lost 50 percent of its wetlands in the past century. But even such damning reports don't move the government to do anything except throwing suspect figures at people.
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