FaithWorld

from The Human Impact:

Death in “Dev Bhoomi” – Disaster in Hinduism’s holiest place

Prakash Kabra recites his elder brother’s mobile number and I carefully tap it into my phone – already knowing the response, but still with a naïve sense of hope.

"The number you are calling is either switched off or unreachable at the moment. Please try again later," says the automated reply.

It’s a response Prakash has heard countless times over the last six weeks. Yet he continues to call, hoping against hope that his brother – missing since deadly floods and landslides devastated India’s Himalayas – will answer.

Along with 14 other family members, Prakash's brother, a businessman from the city of Lucknow, had travelled to the scenic northern region of Uttarakhand for the "Char Dham Yatra" – the most sacred of pilgrimages for the world's one billion Hindus.

But the Kabra family did not return home and their faces, along with thousands of others, now stare out from posters plastered on the walls of police stations, hospitals and bus stations in towns and villages across the area.

from India Insight:

More pilgrims mean more trouble for shrines in north India

Nestled in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand attracts increasing numbers of visitors every year. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors to the state rose nearly 200 percent to 30.3 million. With major Hindu shrines located in the state, about 70 percent of the tourists who visit the state visit religious sites. That is a worrying sign for ecologically fragile areas such as Kedarnath – a small temple town located 3,583 metres (11,755 feet) above sea level and almost entirely washed out in recent flash floods.

The rush to the Himalayas has been accompanied by a haphazard pattern of growth that might not be sustainable. A study by infrastructure group IL&FS IDC Ltd showed that the carrying capacities – maximum number of persons an environment can support -- of various tourist centres in Uttarakhand reached saturation levels in 2010.

It is in this context that some environmentalists have been calling the devastating floods a man-made catastrophe. “Ecological fragility sets limits. Today these limits are being violated … and the pilgrimage to the Char Dhams is being turned into crass consumerist mass tourism,” said activist Vandana Shiva in an email conversation with me. (To see pictures from the flood crisis, click here)

Islamist charity aims to be Pakistanis’ salvation in flood crisis

aid line (Photo: Pakistani flood victims line up for aid distribution in Muzaffargarh district, September 2, 2010/Damir Sagolj)

Lime green dresses for girls spill out of the sack of food, supplies and shoes — a gift from the Islamist charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) to help flood victims celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid this month.

Blacklisted by the U.N. over its links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the 2008 attack on Mumbai, the JuD has been quick to help people hit by Pakistan’s floods, raising fears among U.S. officials that Islamists use aid to gain recruits.

But it does not have the capacity to establish a big presence — the devastation was so vast that roads were cut and the only means of transport is helicopter — so JuD officials say they are trying to make up for this by other, thoughtful, means.

FACTBOX – Lashkar-e-Taiba charity wing in Pakistan flood relief work

dawaThe Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, has been providing relief to those hit by Pakistan’s floods.

It is operating in flood-hit areas under a different name, the Falah-e-Insaniyat, after the JuD was blacklisted by the United Nations following the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, which was blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan has said  it will clamp down on charities linked to Islamist militants amid fears their involvement in flood relief could exploit anger against the government and undermine the fight against groups like the Taliban.

United States Agency for International Development head Rajiv Shah toured a camp run by the Falah-e-Insaniyat on Wednesday.

from Afghan Journal:

The exaggerated role of violent groups in Pakistan’s relief effort

PAKISTANS-FLOODS/

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has once again spoken of the danger of hardline Islamists exploiting the misery of the flood-affected to promote their cause,  which must be cause for worry for security forces in not just Pakistan but over the border in Afghanistan as well, fed by the same  militant fervour. Zardari called it the " ideal hope of the radical" that the floods would discredit Pakistan's government and warned that some of these extremist groups aimed to scoop up orphaned children and  "create them into robots."

Such fears, though,  didn't stop Zardari from proceeding on a heavily criticised foreign tour just as the flooding was getting worse, even though that was exactly the sort of thing that would  fuel public anger and hand the initiative to the Islamist groups.

But quite apart from Zardari's fulminations, the question, nearly a month into the disaster is whether the Islamists charities linked to  militant groups have really made a difference to the lives of the millions hit by the floods.  Setting up a tent here, offering food and medicines at another place are all good, but they would seem like a drop in the ocean, literally, given the scale of the devastation Pakistan is confronted with.

Pakistan to clamp down on Islamist militant charities in flood areas

sukkur food line (Photo: Flood victims wait for food handouts in a relief camp in Sukkur, August 20, 2010/Akhtar Soomro)

Pakistan has said  it will clamp down on charities linked to Islamist militants amid fears their involvement in flood relief could exploit anger against the government and undermine the fight against groups like the Taliban.  Islamist charities have moved swiftly to fill the vacuum left by a government overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and struggling to reach millions of people in dire need of shelter, food and drinking water.

It would not be the first time the government has announced restrictions against charities tied to militant groups, but critics say banned organisations often re-emerge with new names and authorities are not serious about stopping them.

“The banned organisations are not allowed to visit flood-hit areas,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters on Friday. “We will arrest members of banned organisations collecting funds and will try them under the Anti-Terrorism Act.” More than 4 million Pakistanis have been made homeless by nearly three weeks of floods, making urgent the critical task of securing enough aid.

from Afghan Journal:

The Islamists and the Great Flood of Pakistan

(Flood victims in Pakistan's Sukkur)

(Flood victims in Pakistan's Sukkur)

Pakistan's floods are now considered to be more damaging than the massive earthquake that devastated its part of Kashmir in 2005, not least because of the inability of the administration to respond quickly to the crisis.  Pakistan is not alone in the region ill-prepared  to cope with natural disasters. Bigger, richer India is just as unable to either eliminate or limit the destruction that its bountiful rivers unleash each monsoon, and you hear the same chorus of criticism of government apathy. Bangladesh, too, gets more than its share of cyclones and floods each season, and yet successive governments are overwhelmed each time disaster strikes.

But the one difference in Pakistan is that Islamist charities, some believed linked to militant groups, are ready to step into the breach. And that is worrying a lot of people, as the flood waters sweep over Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, the province in northwest Pakistan which has been the main battleground in the fight against militants, down to the heartland province of Punjab and into Sindh.

The concerns centre on Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity arm of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the  banned Pakistani militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai in which 166 people were killed. The Jamaat, which was banned by the U.N. Security Council last December, is working with Fatah-i-Insani Foundation, which is also suspectedof links to extremists, setting up relief camps and sending medical camps to the flooded northwest. It had also organised medical ambulances for emergency treatment, survivors said.