I recently travelled to the north eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh. This region is about 420 kilometres from the state’s summer capital of Srinagar, and reaches all the way up to the perpetually-disputed and occasionally-contested border with China; a mirror image of the fractious border with Pakistan on the western side of the state.
Soaring mountain ranges, snow capped peaks, rivers through the valley, crystal clear lakes and sand dunes. Unfortunately, the serene landscape still contains generations of feelings of unrest, bitterness and dispute.
To complicate matters, it is also an area prone to natural disasters. Last month, the state of Jammu & Kashmir experienced some of its worst flooding in fifty years. At least 375 people lost their lives, and an estimated 600,000 people have been displaced. These statistics, of course, are just for the “Indian” side of the floods; inclusion of the Pakistani side swells the numbers quite considerably.
Collaboration even in statistical reporting is not on the cards for this region.
Flooding, landslides and devastation for three reasons continually plight this region. All of which are exacerbated by generalised poverty.
- First, the Himalayan Mountains are the youngest and thus the least stable in the world.
- Secondly, the region’s monsoons provide plenty of water for these forces to be at work. Indeed, climatologists predict that the South Asian monsoon season is going to provide more heavy rainfall events and less moderate cycles in the future.
- Finally, population spurts on both sides of the border have meant that land previously marked for this water’s yearly path is now built upon, trees are removed and people are willing to settle on steep hillsides. Common thinking has become why should land be “wasted” for flooding for just a few days a year. This thinking has seen building in low-lying areas and neglect of flood channels all together.
This threat of annual disaster is becoming a reality, with nearly 1000 people killed last year in India near the source of the Ganges River, and in 2010 in Pakistan a region the size of the UK was flooded after the Indus River burst its banks. This year’s floods are estimated to have caused damage equal to $1 billion.
When I travelled to Ladakh about a week after the initial flooding, although it is some 400km away with not a drop of floodwater in sight, there were significant impacts there too. No Internet for any of the businesses, restaurants, tour agents, hotels or students. Patchy and unreliable phone connection meant that many of these businesses were losing real income and customers for weeks after the initial floods.
For seven months of the year, most large towns and cities in this region cater to the tourist trade. The other five months of the year they enter hibernation mode, where the money they have earned has to last them as the temperature drops too low to invite tourists in and the roads are mostly impassable anyway. If the tourist season is hampered, say by communication lines being wiped out by floods, it has a tangible, lasting impact on these people’s lives, which no amount of disaster-hand outs can solve.
After two decades of unrest, which often bubbles over into violence and unnecessary force resulting in estimates of a total fifty thousand lives lost, from 2012 there seemed to be the beginning of change in the region. Flights to Srinagar were packed. New hotels and coffee shops were popping up across the region to cater for the pilgrimages and tourists who patter the state’s streets. By relative measures, Kashmiri Indians are as well-off as any other Indian.
To say that the solution for this area is complicated is a rather large understatement. Today’s relative peace may be attributed to businesses and locals recognising the wealth dividend that comes with stability, rather than any genuine reconciliation with the disputed situation.
The points of reference for much of the area surrounding Ladakh are not signage, but the expanses of Indian military barracks. Endless miles of military training grounds, with emotive statues and posters along the routes proclaiming, “there is no second place in war”. In what could be described as an American demonstration of soft power, these expanses seem like an advert for India’s strength against their “enemies” across the mountains.
Yet the chaos caused by these natural disasters is likely to be attributed to the failures of the state government rather than Mr Modi in Delhi. This removes a large incentive for the Indian premiership to build bridges with Pakistan in order to clear up the mess or to act to prevent further disasters. It has been said that India’s loftily named National Disaster Management Authority is nothing more than a “ineffectual retirement home for ex-civil servants”.
This year’s floods were politicized further by India’s rejection of help from other nations and international organizations, even the United Nations. This approach allows India to display itself as the hero of the people.
The floods and landslides that characterize this region should not endure as a political issue. Collaboration between India and Pakistan in this issue has the potential to actually save lives, livelihoods and infrastructure. India will never accept the “disputed” status of Kashmir, but nor can repressive policies endure.
If the two nations collaborate, there is a greater chance of success in making their case against climate change on an international stage, not to mention the prospect of coordinated investment in order avoid this worsening annual devastation.
Grace Lown is an Economics graduate born and raised in London. After graduating with her MSc in International Relations, she earned her wings in a London think-tank. Currently living and working in Delhi, India.