Dr. Kundan Lal Chowdhury

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The Deluge and After

by Dr. K. L. Chowdhury

I read about the flooding of Kashmiri Pandit Refugee Camps on the night of 19th August from a Jammu-based news paper. There were accounts of KP leaders and a cabinet minister of the state having visited the camps on the next morning and promised all help on an emergency footing. Next day I received phone calls from camp inmates that the flood victims were in need of medical aid. That prompted me to lead a medical team of Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center to Mishriwalla ‘Migrant’ Camp to take stock of the health and living conditions of the camp inmates ravaged by floods. We went there on the 21st August and spent the whole morning and afternoon in the camp.

It was Saturday and the place looked barren. We saw depressed faces around us.  A few inmates took us round the camp dwellings affected by the flood in order to get a general feel of the place and people and to make an on the spot verification of the extensive damage wrought to the belongings including the bedding, floor matting, electrical equipment, books and other utilities.

Mishriwalla Camp is situated in a desolate suburb about 15 kilometers from the city on the left of the Jammu-Akhnoor highway. It is a craggy landscape from where the earth is being gouged out to provide raw material for the brick kilns that dot the whole neighbourhood and pump the effluent and smoke into the vicinity polluting the atmosphere. The refugee camp comprises a number of one-room tenements built in rows and separated by narrow lanes on a ground that slopes down towards a small stream that runs in the hinterland and feeds the fields of Mishriwalla from the Ranbir Canal . There are two public utility toilet blocks adjacent to a bund that separates the fields and the stream from the refugee camp. These latrines cater to the needs of the refugee camp .

The flood waters had come from this swollen stream and the open fields. The swirling waters had run over the bund and through the public toilets and latrines, spilling excreta on the ground and carrying it through the narrow lanes and along the drains inside the rooms where the water had risen to a level of three to four feet.

A camp inmate related his horror when he woke up at about 2 AM and found himself in a waterlogged bed. He stood up and saw the room filled with water. The water was madly gushing in from his door and finding its way into the kitchen. His pots and pans were floating, the inverter and gas stove had sunk, his one month ration of food grains, pulses, condiments etc had disappeared under the water. He shouted aloud in pain and disbelief. When he opened the door he was horrified to find the tenements sunk half way in a sea of water. By that time the neighbourhood was up and people were shouting, calling for help, running amok, and not knowing where to turn. It was a long long night of horror.

The deluge had caused total damage to the beddings and matting, destroyed the pantries, caused short circuit of electric gadgets, and damaged other household utilities. Nearly 125 one-room tenements had come under the spell of the swirling water, adversely affecting more than a thousand inmates. 

We walked through the smell and stench that has enveloped the locality. The whole place was rife with mosquitoes, flies and other vermin. The water had receded, leaving the rooms damp and smelling. The dark and dingy tenements have turned into hell holes from the heat and humidity and lack of ventilation. Inside these inhospitable dungeons people sweated, sweltered and sighed. There was no one to wipe tears. 

The inmates were still in a state of shock from the calamity. Their bedding was wet or unusable. They were assembling the remains of their earthly possessions and trying to rebuild their lives.

Wading through the heavily contaminated flood waters has caused extensive skin infections and allergies. Almost all the inmates of the affected segment of the refugee camp were scratching, oozing pus and blood from the skin infections.

A large number of them have also contracted a highly contagious eye infection. The patients present a picture of swollen, angry red and lacrimating eyes. It looks like a viral conjunctivitis and is spreading fast in the camp in an epidemic. I hope it is not one of the viruses that have a potential to cause neurological complications in these patients.

Many inmates were in acute panic state, others were recovering from heat exhaustion and fatigue syndrome by the physical effort of trying to retrieve what is left of their belongings from the deluge. Yet, others were hoarse from shouting. When one of them asked me to write a medicine for his hoarseness and I advised him to give rest to his voice, he grumbled, “We did not know what to do when we saw ourselves marooned. We just shouted and kept shouting for help. Besides, so many of them, leaders and ministers, have been coming here, and we have to repeat the same story over and over again. They come with false promises and politicize our tragedy, making a mockery of our travails. It seems they are all deaf and we have been shouting ourselves hoarse in vain.” I had no answer.

We were informed that a no help had arrived from any source. Some government officials had followed the minister’s visit and gone round the place but were not impressed nor convinced that there was much damage, because by that time the flood water had receded and the inmates had cleaned and dried up what was left of their beddings and dwellings. Neither has any team of doctors been sent by the government to attend to their health problems. With that any hope that the administration would come to their rescue has evaporated.

I was besieged by hundreds of sick patients whom I examined on the roadside under the shade of a tree, all those whose health has been directly or indirectly impacted by the catastrophe as well as other chronic and acutely ill patients in the camp. It was a heart-wrenching experience.

Then we went visiting each of the affected families to find to our horror the wretched living conditions of our brethren. There are rooms that have never seen the light of day like catacombs harboring people in a pathetic state of health who look more dead than alive. Tenement number 534 presented a horrific picture. We entered through a corridor lit by an eerie light diffusing from a small green skylight that gave a somber look as it led us inside a dark room sans windows or ventilators. A huge water cooler in a corner was vainly blowing hot air directed at a dark complexioned wasted figure with a swollen tummy lying on a wet mattress on the floor. Mrs. Omkar Nath - that was the name of the figure - could barely speak with her feeble voice, her hands tremulous, her feet edematous, her cheeks hollow, and her eyes sunken. She begged for the final release. She was suffering from terminal liver disease.  Her son, a lowly employee in the police department related the tale of woe, how they were eight members cramped in that hole. He looked a pale shadow of what a police man should look like.

Veena in nearby tenement number 530, and her husband Kanaya Lal, almost dragged me into their cheerless room. The pair was still flood-shocked and hysterical. She was trembling and torn with anxiety. They had lost their belongings to the flood and greatly in need of material and moral help. I examined her on the bare floor and did all I could to comfort the couple.

Sangeeta led me to her home 528. The floor had been washed of the flood trail of mud and filth. There was nothing  except the remains of the depredation left behind by the receding waters in that room where she lead a spartan existence with her family off the pittance that the government provides as dole.

It was distressing to witness the same story in each room we visited. Malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis, vitamin deficiencies, etc. are rampant in the camp inmates. Chronic respiratory disease because of the environmental pollution from the brick kilns and the overcrowding is common. There is widespread disease, depression and despair.

Because of the contamination of all the filth from gutters and toilets there is a looming danger of the outbreak of water-borne disease like cholera, gastroenteritis, typhoid, hepatitis, as well as insect-borne disease like malaria and dengue fever.

We picked up a team of social activists on the spot form amongst the camp inmates. I have tasked them to prepare a list of all the sick patients. Special medical camps will be held for them and all arrangements made to carry them to and from our mission hospital at Durga Nagar for examination and treatment. We will also hold a dermatology camp to take care of the skin infections.

Virji Bhat, Roopji Pandita, Jawahar Lal, Chandji, and Vinodji who comprised my visiting medical team were  joined on the following day by Adarsh Ajit, Romesh Raina, and

Rajesh Dhar to effect the distribution of chemical disinfectants and to provide a liberal supply of chlorines tablets for water purification, antibiotic eye drops and skin ointments and lotions for each of the 125 families affected.

The whole team will stay in touch with the camp inmates to oversee the other projects of healthcare delivery that we will embark upon. They will also visit other refugee camps affected by the flash floods.

I wonder if the Sate government will ever reverse its policy of apartheid, shed its apathy, and treat the Kashmir Pandit refugees as children of the State. The media are not interested in the news about these forgotten people living on the fringes of society. The refugees languishing in Mishriwalla, Purkhoo and other camps are waiting for the national conscience to awaken.  

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