(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Since India’s Jammu and Kashmir state was hit in September by its worst-ever floods, which also affected people on Pakistan’s side of the disputed border, the two rival nations are under growing pressure to put aside their differences to protect Kashmiris from rising disaster threats.
During the recent floods, a top Pakistani militant leader ordered his men to stop fighting Indian forces across the border and to swap their weapons for humanitarian aid.
Syed Salahuddin, chairman of the United Jihad Council, an umbrella for 13 militant groups based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told journalists in Muzaffarabad trade routes across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir should be transformed into an aid channel for flood-affected people.
While there is some scepticism over words like this from groups battling for Kashmir’s sovereignty, they add to a chorus of officials and experts urging the Indian and Pakistani authorities to set up systems to warn local people of natural hazards and respond quickly in an emergency.
“If some joint mechanism is put in place for humanitarian purposes at the time of natural disasters, the democratic governments on both sides would be serving residents of the region through coordinated efforts in a much better way,” said a senior state official in Jammu and Kashmir, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media on the issue.
But due to “complex relations” between India and Pakistan, “suspicion and security concerns always prevent cross-border cooperation between (the) two parts of the state in the wake of a natural calamity – which is unfortunate as genuinely humanitarian considerations get ignored,” the official added.
A 750-km militarised ceasefire line that was converted into the “Line of Control” under a peace agreement in 1972 carves up Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
The two South Asian nations have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from British rule in 1947. Violence flares periodically in the region, most recently in October.
Nonetheless, trade and travel across the Line of Control has taken place on a weekly basis since a major earthquake hit the region in 2005. And in 2010, when large swathes of Pakistan were flooded by heavy monsoon rains, Islamabad accepted a $5 million aid donation from New Delhi.
AID OFFERS DECLINED
But in the wake of this September’s floods, neither Pakistan nor India took up offers of aid from each other’s leaders for flood-hit communities on opposite sides of the border.
“If India has sympathy for us, it should give us our right to self-determination,” said Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, the prime minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
But he did promise to divert some 6 billion Pakistani rupees ($58.4 million) from the state budget to assist people hit by floods in Jammu and Kashmir if border restrictions were lifted.
On this occasion, however, the Line of Control was not opened to permit the passage of aid, as it was after the 2005 earthquake that devastated Kashmir and neighbouring areas of northern Pakistan.
In early October, Pakistani Kashmir officials sent back dozens of trucks carrying aid from the border town of Chakothi, dispatched by the relief arm of militant group Jamat-ud-Dawa (JUD), after being told India would not accept it, according to Aziz Alvi, chief of the local JUD chapter.
Both countries should temporarily open their borders in times of adversity, Alvi added.
Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan, former prime minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and head of the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, urged the governments concerned – India, Pakistan and the state administrations in both parts of Kashmir – to form a joint relief commission to help flood-hit areas. This should be established as a permanent body to deal with future crises, he added.
As Kashmir is a disputed territory, the United Nations has the responsibility to assist the region’s inhabitants in difficult times, and should push India and Pakistan to do the same, Ahmed said.
Pakistani Kashmir-based political and religious parties presented a memorandum to the U.N. Military Observers for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) in Muzaffarabad calling on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to visit flood-hit areas of Kashmir. He did not, although the U.N. system stood ready to help the two countries, a spokesman for Ban said.
The Pakistani groups also said India should be directed to allow international aid groups to respond to the flood disaster as Pakistan-administered Kashmir did after the 2005 earthquake. Some, including Oxfam, are now working in Jammu and Kashmir to help flood survivors, but India was criticised for being slow to request foreign support.
Ershad Mehmood, executive director of the Islamabad-based Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the recent floods in Kashmir highlighted the need to develop a joint mechanism to share real-time information regarding reservoir levels and river flows.
Both parts of Kashmir are the primary casualty of flash floods in the mountains, before floodwaters reach the plains of Punjab and Sindh, he said.
And experts fear that accelerated glacier melt in the Himalayas due to climate change in the next three decades will heighten the risk of floods, he noted.
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