Economy

After the Deluge, a State Awash With Empty Words

The former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir parses the flood relief package announced by the Modi government recently and finds that the numbers just don’t add up

People move through a water logged area in Anantnag after heavy rainfall caused floods in South Kashmir on Thursday. PTI Photo.

People move through a water logged area in Anantnag after heavy rainfall caused floods in South Kashmir on Thursday. PTI Photo.

Kashmir was once again in the news last week with images of flooded homes & inundated lands. Social media and the local print media circulated photographs of panic-stricken shopkeepers rushing in the dead of night to empty their shops. These shopkeepers in Lal Chowk and Hari Singh High Street were afraid that rising water levels would once again destroy their livelihoods and leave them close to penury.

Not too long ago I wrote a piece for The Wire to coincide with Prime Minister Modi completing a year in office. I mentioned the sense of disappointment that was creeping in amongst the people who suffered as a result of last September’s catastrophic floods. These victims of the flooding were small shop and business owners who lost everything. There were homeowners left without a home to return to. If they were lucky to have a home that still stood, it was an empty shell with the contents all but destroyed by the stagnant waters. They all had one thing in common – hope, hope that the Government of India and particularly the PM would follow through on the commitment to help the people of J&K. It wasn’t an unfair expectation given that Mufti Syed, while assuming office as Chief Minister, had justified his alliance with the BJP by saying that neither the National Conference nor Congress (both of whom had promised to support his bid for power) could deliver the Rs. 44,000 crore package the state needed for reconstruction.

Puny package

In the din surrounding the Lalit Modi hoopla, word came that two of the big four Union ministers would be addressing a press conference in Delhi. It was immediately assumed that they would speak on the issue at hand given that the Finance Minister was being whispered about as one of the villains of the piece. It was a surprise all around when it emerged that the presser was to announce a big package for J&K. You could have cut the sense of expectation with a knife. You don’t roll out your big guns in the middle of a major PR crisis to announce some puny amount. The speculation in Srinagar was immediate and centred around the sum to be announced. The number varied but no one suggested the figure would be less than five digits. What a disappointment they were in store for!

Rupees One Thousand Six Hundred and Sixty Seven Crores. That was the sum total of the announcement. Of course it was neatly packaged with mentions of the amounts released to the state earlier but this press conference announced Rs. 1667 crore and the intent to send a central government team to look at creating a road map for further development. Now the aforementioned knife is cutting through the sense of disappointment and disgust.

The anger is justified and the numbers justify the anger. Let’s look at the fine print of what the state has received so far and I’ll let you decide if we are wrong to be angry.

Billed by the Air Force

The announcement of the first instalment came soon after the waters started to subside (the fact that the release of the money came 12 hours before the PM landed in the state on Diwali is another matter altogether) and was of the order of Rs.1602 Cr. Now look at the fine print – this was subject to adjusting 90% that was already available to the state in the normal course as the balance in the State Disaster Relief Fund. Since the state had Rs.1059 Cr in the SDRF, we got an additional Rs. 43 Cr. To add insult to injury, the state was billed Rs. 500 Cr for the rescue and relief effort mounted by the Indian Air Force. Don’t get me wrong, we are very grateful for all their efforts but it’s one thing to be rescued and quite another to be paying passengers for the seats and cargo space. As an aside, I’m curious to see if Nepal will be billed for the IAF missions after the earthquake and if so, will the money come out of the one billion dollars recently announced by the External Affairs Minister. So, Rs. 43 Cr in the first instalment.

The second instalment was to the tune of Rs.1000 Cr announced as Additional Special Plan Assistance. The ASPA is a window created by the Planning Commission to allow the state to balance its books, so to speak, and finalise a plan size well in excess of what the state revenue would normally allow. Last year (2014-2015), we never had the meeting with the Planning Commission and the state’s plan was never finalised so I’m uncertain as to whether this ASPA is what the state required to finalise the scheme of financing or this is over and above that. I’ll hazard a guess that this is part of the routine scheme of financing and went in to that great big melting pot called the consolidated fund of the state. If that is the case, the flood victims didn’t see a penny of this money. I’m happy to be corrected on this one point and told that this money was over and above the 2013-2014 ASPA released to the state but somehow I doubt that correction will come.

The third instalment was the only meaningful one, to the order of Rs. 770 Cr. This money was genuinely focused at the flood victims with Rs. 570 Cr for reconstruction and repair of pucca and kucha houses. There was Rs. 175 Cr allocated to replace damaged medical equipment in the hospitals and Rs. 25 Cr for textbooks for children to replace the ones lost to the flood waters. The only problem with this instalment was that the amount available for homeowners was minuscule as compared to the damage and losses that have been suffered. However, hope sprung eternal and the people clung to the expectation that this was a taster for what was to come.

Playing regional politics

Finally we come to the press conference that I mentioned above, perhaps the cruelest cut of all. The Union Finance Minister announced Rs. 1667 Cr as the relief to the state and the devil truly is in the detail. Of this amount, a whopping Rs. 838 Cr has been taken to clear past liabilities on account of the Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Programme. An explanation of this scheme and its history would take another entire piece here, needless to say that it has nothing to do with flood reconstruction. The Border Roads Organisation has been given Rs. 47 Cr for the Jammu-Srinagar Highway and Rs. 59 Cr has been taken on account of food grain subsidy. There is an amount of Rs. 172 Cr for the tourism infrastructure damaged in the floods. I can only assume that this includes both the damage to government owned as well as privately owned infrastructure. Even if it’s only for the private sector it doesn’t even begin to cover the damage and loss suffered by the industry. The second largest component of the Rs. 1667 Cr package is for reconstruction and repair of kucha houses and that comes to Rs. 551 Cr. Unlike the previous instalment, where the amount allocated was for both types of houses, this one comes with the stipulation that it’s only for kucha houses. This stipulation is problematic because it stinks of regional bias. Anyone who knows Kashmir will tell you that people don’t build kucha houses in the valley. I have never played one region against another and have never favoured one over the other so when I see relief packages that clearly discriminate between regions it’s not just disappointing, it’s worrying.

In all this, the state government led by Mufti Syed can’t absolve itself of its complicity. Having claimed that his alliance with the BJP was to ensure adequate flood relief, Mufti sahib has failed miserably in delivering on this commitment. To make matters worse, the state finance minister was present at the press conference when this final instalment was announced. He even went so far as to place on record his satisfaction with the assistance provided by the Centre!

What J&K needs

I’d like to add one final word about the Rs. 44,000 Cr package that was asked for by the state. It’s been suggested that the figure is an arbitrary one, arrived at without the necessary homework and fatally flawed. Nothing could be further from the truth. A team of senior officers worked over a couple of weeks to assess the losses. They travelled across the state to gather first hand information and then sat with a cross-section of stakeholders from industry, tourism, agriculture, horticulture, small shop/business owners and civil society to arrive at the number. In fact, this number was considerably lower that the Rs.100,000 Cr that was being demanded by these stakeholders as compensation for losses suffered.

I could go on and on about the discrimination between the relief paid out in cases like the Gujarat earthquake and the Uttarakhand flash floods but I think you’ve got the gist of what I’m trying to convey here. House owners are struggling to rebuild their homes, shopkeepers haven’t received a penny in the form of relief, contractors haven’t been paid for emergency restoration work carried out by them. In fact, even the water bodies and flood channels haven’t been dredged and this results in sudden flood-like situations developing. Students are being asked to pay money towards the repair and restoration of their schools and colleges. Almost nine months after the most devastating floods in a lifetime, if you find people in J&K upset over the hollow promises and empty words they’ve been treated to then you know why.

Omar Abdullah is a former Chief Minister of Jammu of Kashmir