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Human Rights

Restricted Phone Service Leaves Kashmiris Unable to Call Authorities When Fires Break Out

Indian-administered Kashmir

Phone and cell service is still limited in Jammu and Kashmir, three months after the Indian government revoked the state’s semi-autonomous status. So when an emergency occurs – like a fire – people say they still can’t call for help.

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Down a narrow lane in the Alochi Bagh neighborhood of Srinagar, one house lays in ashes, razed to ground.

Eighteen people, members of three families, lived in that house. But when a short circuit started a fire in August, authorities didn’t arrive until it was too late.

Though residents of the house have cellphones, the ongoing communications block meant that their calls to 101, the emergency number here, didn’t go through.

Mohammad Shafi Dar, who owned the house, now lays in a rented room with a cast on his leg. He says the family took desperate measures to get out of the house alive.

“First, I threw my wife from the window,” he says. “She suffered from some sprains, but, thanks be to God, she didn’t suffer any fractures.”

When he jumped out of the window, he wasn’t as lucky.

“I jumped and fell on the cement road below and suffered a major fracture on my leg,” he says. “The doctor has advised me to keep the plaster on for two and a half months.”

Now, the family rents a single room.

Nahina Shafi, Dar’s daughter, was the first to sense the fire.

“I had to go to the washroom, so I got up. Everyone else was sleeping. In the washroom, I heard some noises from outside. At first I didn’t give any heed to it, but the noise grew,” she says. “I opened the window and saw that there was fire on the second floor and it was burning.”

Most Srinagar residents have been without any means of communication since August 5 — the day the Indian government scrapped Article 370, ending the semi-autonomous status which Jammu and Kashmir, the nation’s only Muslim-majority state, has enjoyed since it was established in 1949.

Authorities have severely limited phone and internet communications for the more than two months since.

Most landlines across the area are working now, but cell service, which most residents rely on, is still largely unavailable. By mid-September, authorities reported that 100% of landlines and 10% of cell service had been restored. But more than a month later, residents say both services remain spotty.

“Phones were not working,” Shafi says. So other members of the family took action to try to help their elderly relatives escape.

“My cousins were also on the second floor in another room, but my elder cousin managed to bring them down. My parents were still stuck there. They couldn’t get down,” Shafi says.

Like her father, her brothers both suffered fractures from their escape attempts.

Now, the families’ futures are uncertain.

Shafi says the government offered them 150,000 rupees ($2,118) for the damages since they were not able to call emergency services.

In August, there were at least 25 fires in Srinagar, according to data provided by the Fire and Emergency Services clerical office. Another 40 fires occurred in September, and 13 have been reported so far in October. But there is no data to estimate how many fires have not been responded to due to the communication lockdown. It remains unclear if other homeowners will also receive compensation from the government.

Shafi, who was supposed to get married in a few months, says the fire upended their lives.

“The clothes, gold and cash I collected were burned,” she says. “We had collected everything bit by bit with a lot of hard work.”

Waheeda Imtiyaz, her sister-in-law, says that they too lost their life savings in the fire.

“We have nothing left,” Imtiyaz says, adding that they continue to survive based on the generosity of their neighbors.

Dar says he believes access to a phone line would have saved his home, as there is a greater chance of the saving the structure if the fire is responded to within the first 20 minutes.

“They came with the fire bus, but by then everything was burned,” Shafi says. “A simple phone call would have been enough.”

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kashmiri.