NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Authorities in Kashmir collected bodies floating in the streets on Thursday as anger mounted over what many survivors said was a bungled operation to help those caught in the region’s worst flooding in 50 years.
Both the Indian and Pakistan sides of the disputed Himalayan region have been hit by extensive flooding in recent days, and about 450 people have been killed, with Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar particularly hard hit.
“Some air force officials have reported that they have seen bodies of women and children floating. We are making every effort to collect the bodies as soon as we can,” said Srinagar police officer Faizal Wani.
He later said police dragged the bodies of three men, including a news photographer, from the water near the centre of the city famed for its lakes and mountain views.
The ferocity of the floods appeared to have caught the administration in Kashmir by surprise and has prompted an outpouring of anger in a Muslim-majority region where a 25-year-old revolt against Indian rule simmers.
In Pakistan, the death toll climbed to 257 and more than half a million people have been affected by the floods, with large tracts of farmland inundated and houses swept away.
“I do not know how and from where the floods came from. It came so suddenly that even our experts were caught unaware,” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during a visit to Haveli, one of the worst-affected areas in Pakistani Kashmir.
In Srinagar, Wani said the army and state officials were moving survivors to field hospitals and relief camps on higher grounds. Nearly 100,000 people have been rescued by the military in the past week, many of them by helicopter.
Police said some Srinagar residents had been trapped in the top floors of their homes since the Jhelum river, swollen by unusually heavy rain, surged higher last week. The river flows from Indian Kashmir to the Pakistan side, and then down into Pakistan’s lower Indus river basin.
Officials say 220 people have been killed in Srinagar, a city of about 1 million people. City police officer Altaf Khan cited reports of bodies trapped beneath debris but said the scale of the disaster would only become clear once the water receded.
The Indian army has deployed about 30,000 troops for rescue and relief operations and soldiers distributed 224,000 litres of water and food to survivors. In a gesture of solidarity, staff at the Indian prime minister’s office gave up one day’s salary for flood relief.
Many people praised the army on social media for its efforts but others vented their anger at delays in getting help to survivors.
Basharat Peer, a journalist and author of a book on the Kashmir conflict, who is working as a volunteer in Srinagar, said the response to the disaster had been woeful.
“It is clear case of mismanagement. Why are the basic supplies still not made available?” Peer asked.
“There are thousands of people searching for their families They have no idea whether they are alive or dead. We have no clean drinking water, no medicines and food to feed the children,” he said.
Authorities in New Delhi said they had been overwhelmed by the flooding. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be conducting an emergency meeting to assess the disaster.
“We are just shocked to see how our paradise has been destroyed. Proper assessment of the disaster is yet to begin,” a senior interior ministry official in New Delhi said of Kashmir.
Pakistan’s heavily populated Punjab province was among the worst affected, with military helicopters evacuating thousands of people from the banks of the overflowing Chenab river.
In the city of Jhang, large swathes of land was under water on Thursday, with many residents refusing to leave for fear of losing their property, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.
Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi and Maria Golovnina in Islamabad