Kashmiri's just can’t seem to catch a break – whether it’s the violence or the vengeful weather. Raja Begum has not known a day of peace since the September 2014 floods devastated her life. The raging waters of the Jhelum claimed more than 280 lives and damaged property worth crores across Jammu and Kashmir. “It would have been better if we had died,” laments the middle-aged woman, who hails from Pallan Ghat village in district Baramula’s Pattan block. She adds, “Being homeless is worse than being hungry.”
Ever since her one-storey home, located on the banks of the Jhelum, around 35 kilometres from state capital Srinagar, collapsed she and her unmarried daughter have been living in a shed by the river. At 50, Raja Begum, the mother of three children and six grandchildren, struggles for survival everyday although it’s the lack of a permanent home that gives her sleepless nights. “The structure of the shed is weak and we are at the mercy of the elements. Inside, the space is cramped; we have set up a little kitchen in one corner and we sleep in the other. It’s difficult living like this – without the hope of things ever changing for the better. Two years have already passed and we don’t have anywhere else to go,” she says.
Begum, a widow, makes ends meet by selling fish – she earns a paltry Rs 1,500 per month, which is certainly not enough to get by. However, stepping out of the home to earn a living is still not the easiest of things for her to do. When she was married to Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Wani, her first husband from whom she has two children, she ran the household from his earnings as a fisherman. After he passed away from a brain haemorrhage she married Mohammad Ismail Dar, also a fisherman, who passed away in 2010 in an accident. It was only then that she was forced to rethink her entire existence.
Her routine is rather punishing: she leaves home at daylight and sources fresh catch. Then she traverses on foot, with the heavy basket load on her head, to the nearby villages of Palhallan, Pattan and Zangam in the hope of tempting homemakers to purchase fish. Fortunately, her 21-year-old daughter is around to take care of the chores when she’s out.
Her eldest son, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, 32, has his own problems to contend with. A daily wager he has to feed a family of eight, including six children, with the Rs 5,000 he makes every month. He, too, lives in a temporary shelter near his mother’s shed-home. While his three sons are in school, the elder one works alongside him to bring home some much-needed additional income.
Whereas they are used to the rough times, what bothers them immensely today is that despite repeated efforts they haven’t been able to push the administration enough to secure their entitlements under the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), the flagship government housing scheme for the rural poor. In fact, this disturbing reality has frustrated several other families in Pallan Ghat as well.
Like other flood affected families both Begum and her son received Rs 1.5 lakh as compensation from the government, money that they used to buy small plots of land near their old homes in the village. “We had thought that we would be able to make two rooms with the money that would be sanctioned under the IAY so we did the paperwork accordingly,” reveals Begum. So far, they are waiting. “We went through a proper verification process and our name is in the list of beneficiaries but our case is stuck along with many others,” she says. Unofficially, the block officials have told her that most likely either she or her son would receive the financial assistance as and when it comes through, not both.
As such only select IAY applications are forwarded by the panchayat to the Directorate of Social Welfare from which the department usually selects a couple of beneficiaries for the Rs 75,000 grant. That, unfortunately, has translated into a long wait for the more than 40 families that have lost their homes in flood. “What I wouldn’t do for a home of my own! I used to have one but it got snatched away. Now, I don’t know if I will ever get it back. I don’t know for how long I can bear it. As it is, none of us have been able to get past the harrowing memories of those days; there is no end to this nightmare,” says Begum, her voice riddled with pain and resentment.
Indeed, everyone in Pallan Ghat has vivid recollections of the floods. Young Mohammad Rafiq shares, “When the river started rising at around 2am everyone gathered whatever belongings they could and ran to take refuge at the nearby government high school. We all stayed there for over a month and the people took care of each other during that time. When the waters started to recede we ventured back. The damage was heartbreaking. Those who had no homes left made sheds; most continue to live in them.”
Begum adds, “We cleared the debris and constructed temporary shelters with our own hands. The village was cut off for nearly three months. My grandson, who had been working as a labourer in the city during the floods, was unable to speak to us for that period of time because there had been a complete breakdown of communication and all roads had been wiped out.”
Significantly, their tough circumstances have taken a toll on the education of their children as well as their health. Mohammad Rafiq talks about how he has had to give up studies, “I did attend school till Class 11 but then my parents needed me to chip in the household income. There are many children who have quit school and though many of us want to study further we cannot due to financial constraints. It has been hard for all of us to get back on our feet.” These days, Rafiq works as a labourer.
Begum’s granddaughter dropped out of school because her mother needed her. “My daughter-in-law’s arm had been operated upon in Srinagar before the floods and the treatment had cost over a lakh of rupees. Later on, she was unable to go back for follow up check-ups because of the devastation. Moreover, there is no health dispensary here so her condition hasn’t improved.” The daughter-in-law adds, “Doctors have advised mandatory check-ups but, look at our situation – we can’t afford to rebuild our home forget paying for healthcare.”
Clearly, sans roads, a local heath facility, proper livelihood or education, the hardships of the residents of Pallan Ghat are severe. Yet, the community believes that securing an accommodation has to be the starting point of their return to a normal existence. Of course, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for them yet. Even as they fight for homes under IAY they have received a government notice asking them to evacuate the area which the orders terms as “encroached land”. “We have spent our entire lives here. Either the government should provide us alternate land or allow us to construct our houses here. Presently, we have no place to live and no support to rely upon,” rues Mohammad Maqbool Khuroo.
Raja and her neighbour Noora Begum, 55, have the final word, “We were anyway an ignored lot – we never had proper healthcare or income generation opportunities; now we have been rendered homeless as well. Accommodation is our first priority. That will at least enable us to move on from our misery.”
Courtesy: Women's Feature Service