Dancing in the prison

But, as what Voltaire has remarked, optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.

To be an optimist is a nice thing. But, as what Voltaire has remarked, optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable. Sadly, Kashmir valley and parts of Jammu today look in a miserable situation. There is little room for optimism. PDP and BJP look like two partners engaged in an embarrassing public embrace – close eyed and deaf. They must open their eyes now.

J&K's mis-governance is too acute today. Despite PDP's commitment to administrative reforms in its election manifesto, the two parties seem to be comfortable with the governance chaos. Financial situation is dire. It doesn't matter to the people if this situation is due to systemic reasons or political. Public servants and pensioners are without salaries and pensions.

Government owes money to the people who have worked for it. New Delhi today doesn't seem to recognize the urgency of having a Srinagar-New Delhi financial relationship which is suited to its unique, geographical, demographic and political considerations.

Post flood reconstruction is nowhere in sight. Economy is in a shambles. Business sentiment is low because people have lost resources in the floods. Many people are indebted. New business ventures are hard to conceive for the low market sentiment and demand. 

Worse, Srinagar-Jammu "highway" has degenerated into a road to nowhere. Yet there seems to be no urgency to fix or upgrade it to make it travel worthy. The Mughal Road has become a symbolic connectivity. No resources are being allocated to it to make it a decent alternative.

The Nepal earthquake reminded us that our September 2014 floods were not the worst we faced. Kashmir is highly vulnerable to a high-intensity earthquake any time. We have no clue how to deal with that situation in such environment of geographical siege and financial squeeze. 

Looking back at our history, we were never in such a pitiful situation.

Geography has placed Kashmir on the crossroads of great civilisations and cultures – Chinese, Indian, Arab, Central Asian and others. Throughout our known history we have been enriched spiritually, economically and socially by great thinkers who chose Kashmir for theological reflection, literature, vocational and economic development.

While travelling in the great Chinese city of Xi'an, I once happened to come across an elderly Hui Chinese whose ancestors had business ties with Kashmir. He recounted to me the stories of his grandfather who, he said, would travel to Persia with Xi'an silk and transit in Srinagar. It was quite surprising that he named Srinagar, and not just Kashmir.

Xi'an is the Chinese city wherefrom the great Silk Road emanated. Its museum houses a large map that shows the trail of the Silk Road in minute details. The map has four notable names along the trail of the road written in Chinese – Arabia, Persia, Kashmir and India. I preserve the map's picture.

Kashmir has not only been a transit along the Silk Road. We imported great skills and knowledge in manufacturing. We also produced and exported a wide variety of household tools, arts, crafts and even paper. Post 1947, when our borders were drawn and militarized by India and Pakistan, our geography became our disadvantage. All our pre-47 communications ease was history. Kashmir became a virtual prison. 

Looking at today's Kashmir, our manufactured geographical disadvantage seems to cast a question mark on our very survival.

Our only road link with outside world is almost un-useable now. In winters the road is mostly closed. People in the sub-regions of Uri, Karnah, Gurez, Kargil, Leh, Doda, Kishtwar, Bhaderwah, Banihal, and parts of Poonch-Rajouri live a miserable life for this siege. The degeneration and lack of proper development of their ancient connecting roads to Kashmir valley and the Srinagar-Jammu highway is impeding movement of people and hampering business growth.

The problem is that the people who make government policies in Srinagar and Delhi on J&K state don't seem to understand the magnitude of this problem because they hardly ever travel on these roads. They don't seem to understand the implications of this siege if a big natural disaster would strike Kashmir.

The September 2014 flood demonstrated only a part of this vulnerability. When access to the Srinagar-Jammu highway was snapped due to its inundation at some locations in South Kashmir, Kashmir valley was marooned. As the disaster unfolded, government administration simply evaporated. More than seven million people were left to God's mercy and their spirit of self-help. An earthquake could do worse.

Many people who know Kashmir's geology and the tectonic activity beneath our earth know that it is only a matter of time for a major earthquake to strike us. What would happen to the eight million people in Kashmir if a major earthquake would strike us? What if the Srinagar-Jammu "highway" would be knocked out? What if landslides block the Jhelum between Baramulla and Uri? What if the Chenab is blocked due to such landslides?

In October 2013 the International Journal of Earth Sciences published a paper titled "Earthquake geology of Kashmir Basin and its implications for future large earthquakes" that revealed that "two major traces of active thrust faults had been identified in the Kashmir Basin (KB), using satellite images and  mapping of active geomorphic features." Avoiding technical details, the paper said that "the overall tectono-geomorphic expression suggested that recent activity along these faults has tilted the entire Kashmir valley towards NE."

Some GPS findings made in few recent studies conducted by certain state and government of India agencies, worrisomely, seem to corroborate this activity. Both state and central governments are aware of these findings. While the 40 seismometers installed by the Earth Sciences Department of the Kashmir University across the state to verify these preliminary GPS findings are at work, both the state and the central governments must pay greater attention to its findings and have a plan for follow up actions.

As of today neither the state nor the central government seems to treat contingency planning as a priority. Major investment is needed to make Srinagar-Jammu "highway", the Mughal Road and other sub-regional roads travel-worthy and disaster resistant. Moreover, we need alternatives. As I wrote here previously, New Delhi must negotiate a Cross-LoC Disaster Collaboration Agreement (CRODICA) with Islamabad to activate a system of rescue, transportation and other logistical support in case of a major disaster on either sides of the LoC.

It is time for action. Inaction would be a terrible mistake.

The columnist is an international development professional, working in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

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