Feature

Volume 3 Issue 21 - November 01, 2005

Disabled people worst-hit and least attended in Kashmir quake: Report

Kashmir earthquake clearly demonstrates how people with disabilities end up as the worst victims of disasters, due to neglect in all phases of post-disaster initiatives of rescue, relief and rehabilitation. argues Parvinder Singh on the basis of a fact-finding report on the quake by Disabled Peoples' International and National Disability Network.

On the morning of 8th October 2005, a devastating earthquake struck the Kashmir region, measuring 7.6 on Richter scale with its epicentre near Muzzafarabad in Pakistan administrated Kashmir. It, however, took a while for both India and Pakistan to wake up to the scale of destruction that the quake had unleashed. Two week since, the quake has left over 50,000 dead on Pakistani side and taken 1,300 lives on the Indian side. The toll is expected to rise substantially by the second wave of deaths with the onset of the region's notorious winter.

Picture of quake victims at a relief centre

Immediately after the quake, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.), Disabled Peoples’ International – India (DPI – India), and the National Disability Network (N.D.N.) got in touch with the N.D.N. State Partner, Javed Ahmad Tak of Helpline, an NGO working for the rights of disabled people in the remote areas of J&K. Through him stories were revealed that went beyond what the newspaper headlines could capture, particularly with regards to status of people with disabilities. Their plight was multiplied manifold particularly due to the reported lack of coordination and inaccessibility.

A team constituting Parvinder Singh, Senior Project Coordinator with N.C.P.E.D.P., Mukhtar Ahmad and Muzzamil Yakub, both from Helpline -- visited quake affected areas in Kashmir from 18th to 20th October to take a first hand stock of the status of rescue, relief and rehabilitation process with a specific focus on people with disabilities. The objective was to get disability included in the long-term rehabilitation plans being mooted by sensitising the State’s polity and the civil administration.

The team visited hospitals, relief camps and villages in Baramulla, Uri, Tangdhar, and Salamabad. During the course of our visit, we also contacted Honourable Governor, Lt. General Shri S.K. Sinha; State Social Welfare Minister, Shri Mula Ram; and State Human Rights Commissioner, Justice A. Mir. We also spoke to several local officials, medical staff, doctors etc. and not to mention the quake-affected people.

It was a clear display of the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest, when it came to relief distribution, which for the most part was a hit-and-run drill of dumping relief material by NGOs, political parties and charitable trusts. This scene was apparent all along the National Highway No. 1/A from Baramulla onwards. Though there was plenty, the takers of the relief material distributed through this method, were ironically very limited in number. These were largely young boys who could slug it out in the jostling crowd. We saw this at least at a dozen points starting from the outskirts of Uri.

"I have walked here with great difficulty. My braces are my only mode of travel as the artificial limb that was given to me at the Bone and Joint Hospital in Srinagar has cracked and I will need a new one," said 22-year-old Arshad. Arshad lost his right limb a few years ago when a shell landed on his house. He was trapped in the ensuing fire. He has been trekking seven kilometres every day, since his house was destroyed, to the District Medical Centre to try his luck and get some blankets.

"There is a mad rush when relief is being distributed. People are desperate. My father is very old and I have five sisters. This makes me the only one in the family who can come out. My house has got destroyed completely and we have been camping in the open for past eleven days," he said.

This is indicative of why a targeted approach is needed for people with disabilities, who face unimaginable difficulty in accessing relief in times of disasters. This problem was compounded in the case of Kashmir due to its mountainous terrain and general inaccessibility of the region.

Picture of an Army relief centre in Uri

According to an estimate, there are over a million people with disabilities in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. A large number of these people have been disabled due to incidents relating to mine explosions, shelling along the Line of Control and militancy related violence. In view of the above situation, the lack of attention that the civil administration and its officials displayed in terms of attending to people with disabilities took us by surprise.

"There is no specific brief to be kept in mind so far as disabled people are concerned. I will definitely help them on account of humanity. We know things can be tough for them," said an official at a point set up by National Hydro Power Corporation.

A visit to hospitals in Baramulla, Uri and Srinagar revealed that the nature of injuries that were being reported clearly indicate that in the coming days there would be a big rise in number of disabled people in the valley, besides further complications in the existing disability cases.

"The true picture of rehabilitation that these victims will need would emerge only in the coming months. Most of these injuries were caused by dislodged objects. Quite a few of these people would not be able to function as before. There are cases of compound fracture that may get complicated, and some of them may even need amputation," said Dr. S.A. Rashid, Medical Superintendent of the Bone and Joint Hospital in Srinagar.

"Three amputations have taken place so far (till 20th October). These include two men and one girl. They have been referred for surgery. In fact the girl’s amputation was done today itself," said Dr. Samina of Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences.

These visits clearly highlighted the need for both immediate and long-term intervention for providing aids and appliances, apart from medical intervention to avoid or minimise instances of disabilities.

The valley has had a known prevalence of trauma cases since the time insurgency took root, and with the quake it is going to increase. We felt that the people need a greater engagement by the way of easy and accessible counselling, as short-term/temporary measures would not help.

"In a single day we have received about 120 people, coming in for the first time since the quake. Most of these people have very minor problems and are here more because this is their first touch with compassion, after being shocked and traumatized by the destruction and death around them," said a NGO worker.

Picture of quake victims in a ward

The phase of rehabilitation in Kashmir is going to be as important as that of relief as the availability of a cover over the head would mean a difference between life and death.

"As our men were close to the area of impact and are well versed with the topography here, we reacted immediately to carry out rescue operations. We continue to coordinate with the administration and civilians in getting across the relief. But our role cannot be long-term or stretched beyond a point. The civil administration will have to step in and rehabilitate the people affected by quake," said Commanding Officer of 56 Rashtriya Rifle that operates in the Uri sector. This in a way sums up the challenge that civil administration is confronted with.

The Army cannot become the sole manager of disaster management and the civil administration will have to wake up to its responsibility, opined many locals and NGO workers.

"Our homes have got destroyed by the wrath of nature. As it is, the life is difficult here. We are among the lucky few who are putting up in the tent city. But we will have to return to pick up pieces and rebuild our lives," said Noor Mohammad who is putting up at the tent camp near Tangdhar, an area which has sustained greatest damage on the Indian side of LoC, in terms of property.

Following are the recommendations made by the team based on their visit:

1. There is an urgent need to collect data on disabled people, who have been affected by earthquake - those who have been rendered disabled; those with disability who have survived but are affected and people with psychosocial problems, as a result of the disaster.

2. Concrete and time-bound plans to address disability concerns in revival of livelihoods, achieving convergence among all on-going programmes of sustainable development and reconstruction.

3. Disabled friendly and Inclusive built environment, when reconstruction of shelters (temporary or permanent), schools, health centres, housing facilities, water and sanitation facilities, etc. takes place.

4. International and other N.G.O.s supporting the Government in relief/rehabilitation/reconstruction work should include disability on their agenda.

5. Disability should be a priority area for any policy that is being formulated for preparedness, mitigation & management and other efforts to prepare us to face similar challenges with confidence & competence in the future.

6. It is a good opportunity to correct the past mistakes. The Disability Act should be enforced in the State.

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