From the Editor’s Desk – October 2014

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Rasheeda Bhagat

Of man-made disaster and a Messiah

As Jammu and Kashmir grapples with the worst floods in living memory, the untold suffering in the State cannot be termed a “natural” disaster in the real sense of the word.

The Kashmir valley was totally flooded and upto three storeys of homes in Srinagar were in water for days, forcing residents and neighbours from smaller homes to take refuge on the rooftops of taller buildings. While the media, mainly the TV channels, focused more on the Valley, it was easy to forget that even as late as September 15, 20,000 people from 45 villages in Tawi of Jammu were cut off from the rest of J&K. Over 2,550 roads out of 3,517 in the Jammu province were damaged.

But Srinagar, as thousands of tourists who have enjoyed its beauty know it, has been damaged beyond recognition. Experts who have spent long years in Kashmir are telling us how the clamour and craze for “development” without understanding the fragility of environment and ecology, or the sensitive geographic location of Srinagar, has compounded this tragedy several-fold.

As Srinagar is located at the “pinched waist” of the Kashmir Valley, water from the heavy rains and the melting snow of South Kashmir has to flow through a narrow 10 km path through Srinagar. But over the years, despite warning from environmental experts and some bureaucrats sensitive to ecological issues, multiple water paths were turned into smooth four-lane roads, and wetlands were filled up to build colonies and glittering malls. Forget wetlands, parts of the Dal lake have also been taken over for construction. The Dal lake, we are told, was five times its present size during Emperor Akbar’s reign.

In the spring and through summer when the snow melts parts of Srinagar lie well below the Jhelum level and when both the Jhelum and the Dal lake were breached in several places during the present catastrophe, Srinagar, once the pride of Indian tourism, bore the brunt of this devastation. Apparently, local newspapers in Kashmir had been warning from the last five years, through interviews with experts and concerned citizens that this kind of haphazard, unplanned growth and development in the city was a disaster waiting to happen.

It has now happened. In a month when Rotarians across the world are going to concentrate on vocational work and exceptional professionals rising beyond the call of their work and duty in the accepted sense of the word, it is heartening to look at ordinary people in J&K, who are not only lending a helping hand to the Indian armed forces in rescue and rehabilitation, but are risking their lives to rescue the trapped and the stranded. Several Rotarians have been doing their bit in raising money to help the victims in J&K, and greater contribution will be made in the rebuilding of the State.

And then, in Bhubaneswar in India, I am blown away by the phenomenal work done by a Chemistry teacher, Achyuta Samanta, who went far, far beyond his vocation, to create an institution that is changing the lives of thousands of tribal children from the remotest Odisha villages.

Orphaned at the age of four, the man who can’t recall a “single good meal in my childhood,” has established the world class KIIT (Kalinga Institute of Industrial ­Technology), which last fortnight placed 1,500 students in the Top-4 tech companies through the first day of campus recruitment. More important, his parallel institution, KISS (Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences) provides free stay, food and quality education to 22,500 tribal children at a given time. Read Samanta’s extraordinary story of passion and perseverance, courage, risk and relentless hard work in this issue.

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Rasheeda Bhagat

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