Columns/Op-Eds, Uncategorized, Water / Climate

As communications infrastructure collapses, social media is saving lives in J&K

20:32 GMT, 9 September 2014, Mail Online India

Original Link is here

Tragedy has struck Kashmir once again.

That it is perhaps the severest since Independence is undeniable.

The human despair, spirit and resolve are all on display, and the entire country (real and virtual) seems affected by nature’s cruel intervention.

The efforts to rescue those stranded are feeble as the institutions, infrastructure and administrative resilience have been found wanting – yet precisely because of this, the courage and heroic efforts of individuals and some organisations stand out in stark contrast.

SS 1
Floods: The entire country (real and virtual) seems affected by nature’s cruel intervention.

Even as the embankments built in the times of the Maharaja have been breached by ravaging waters, the unfolding tragedy and response is also about the ‘angels or demons’, depending on your take on it – Social Media and the Armed Forces.

A recent report in a leading daily had one of the most powerful men in India, its Home Secretary, observe, “I simply cannot speak to anyone in J&K.”

The last 72 hours have seen the near total collapse of the phone network, and power lines have collapsed. This has complicated coordination and rescue, because stranded people have no way of telling rescue centres of their plight.

Worse still, Delhi is cut off from the Government of J&K, while the Government of J&K is cut off from the army, which is coordinating rescue efforts.

The army is the only body there that has managed to maintain some semblance of intra-organisational communications due to satellite phones. However, it has no way of knowing the location where people are stranded, or how many and how critical their situation is, since the normal method – air reconnaissance – is difficult at best given the cloud cover and weather.

And the much-vilified social media is coming to the rescue. Even as large parts of the mobile communication infrastructure have collapsed, some wireless communication and the traditional wire line communication networks have allowed people access to social media and various messenger services, websites, and some agencies.

SS 2

To the rescue: Social media has helped save the stranded

It has also allowed a degree of dissemination of situational reports, videos and distress messages, many of which have reached the army.

Whatsapp, FB messenger, Twitter and others are the most potent tools for the rescue teams in the valley today.

As a result what we have is the army using satellite phones to communicate, but basing its rescue efforts significantly on guidance from Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter.

In that sense these have effectively replaced the search helicopter, the emergency beacon and the communications network of the valley.

For the governments at the Centre and in the state of J&K, which have frequently demonised social media, this must be a moment of revelation.

In February this year, the then Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, had vowed to “crush social media” to great applause from within his party and some others.

Yet today the home secretary cut a sorry figure, claiming “there is no means to communicate with anybody” till the 15 wireless systems he has sent to be set up in the valley come online.

Social Media, angel or demon? Let the debate begin.

The second story is that of the ‘men in green, blue and white’. Among the nation’s armed forces, they are reviled by a few liberals and a section of those in Kashmir, at the receiving end of Pakistani venom and terror, and frequently derided by the political class in the state and centre.

Yet had it not been for the army’s rescue teams and its “infrastructure of occupation,” as secessionists would call it, how many more lives would have been lost?

At a time when the democratically-elected government of J&K has failed in its civic duties in buttressing the embankments (which they should have known about anyway) and a home ministry that is fumbling in the dark, it is this supposed villain that has come out as the knight in shining armour.

It is this same “infrastructure of occupation” – helipads built on apple orchards, hospitals built on peach orchards and supply dumps built on farm land – that are now being used so effectively to rescue the stranded, treat the wounded, and provide relief supplies to the displaced.

It is this same infrastructure with its bulldozers that is being used to clear roads, and the army trucks that sustain the “occupation” that are being used to ferry in essential supplies for the “occupied”.

Given the police, local government and central government networks failed within the first few hours of the flood and the Doordarshan system which could be used as an emergency communications system also collapsed in this period, it has been the army’s communication systems that have provided the only link between J&K and the rest of the country.

It is the maligned Armed Forces Special Powers Act used to “suppress” Kashmiris, that the army is using to deliver critical supplies to the “occupied”.

And yet vultures who some in Kashmir refer to as “freedom fighters”, would rather support infiltration even at this time, then help their brethren. The IAF, let this debate end.

This is not to say that social media and the deployment of the Armed Forces are always virtuous. The use of social media for malicious purposes is proven. The use of the medium to incite and radicalise is also rampant.

Yet it is a force for good as we saw this past week.

Challenge and vilify the user, do not condemn the tool.

Similarly, the deployment of armed forces has resulted in actions that are highly avoidable. Some of their heavy-handed interventions have resulted in justifiable anger and resentment.

Here again, challenge the political mandate and policy direction from the government, not the army, which remains a force for good.

The writer is vice president at the Observer Research Foundation. His twitter handle is @samirsaran




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