A year after an earthquake devastated Sikkim, landslides have again wrought havoc in the state. Sai Manish on a disaster mismanaged
ON 22 SEPTEMBER, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling was gifted an SUV by his partymen for his birthday. On the same day, far from the celebrations in Gangtok, in Chungthang, collapsing mountains and a raging Teesta river claimed an unknown number of lives.
Even after three days of floods and landslides due to incessant rains, the chief minister had no clue that people were holding on to dear life waiting for a response from their government. Finally, on 24 September, Chief Secretary Karma Gyatso flew over destroyed hamlets and severed towns. When asked about the CM, Gyatso shot off: “Why should the CM come? What is his need when I am here?”
The chief secretary draws a blank when asked about the amount of ex-gratia paid to victims, insisting “something has been paid”.
With no official record of the sporadic distribution of ex-gratia, immediate relief is a black hole into which funds are disappearing without reaching the intended beneficiaries. What is worse is that the government ignored ominous signs that became evident on 5 June in Lachung, another devastated area. Unseen photos and videos in TEHELKA’s possession show Lachung devastated by floods and rockfalls even though the Sikkim government continued denying that people there needed assistance. This time, the government does not even have a clue about the extent of damage there.
So far, the estimated death toll is 29 and an unknown number of dam workers are missing. Like the earthquake last year, private contractors building the 1200 MW Teesta Stage-3 hydro-power project have grossly under-reported the number of missing. Around 250 workers were being sheltered and fed at the local gurudwara in Chungthang, while many escaped on foot towards Siliguri fearing for their lives. Workers escaping from dam sites said that their employers failed to provide relief.
While many of the fleeing workers died enroute, some of the injured were lucky to be spotted by mobile army medical units. The administration, meanwhile, was presuming that the food stock of the gurudwara represented the official foodstock of the town, thus completely washing its hands of providing survival essentials to remote areas to which road connectivity had been badly hit. The first airdrop of food took place as late as 25 September to workers stuck inside a tunnel at Safu in the Dzongu Reserve. The fate of many people in far-flung areas like Lachung and Lachen remains unknown.
The Sikkim government’s bizarre attitude has been that the people of these remote towns cannot stand a tragedy and if the disaster is monumental all of them would naturally come walking down to the district headquarters at Mangan. The devastated roads, however, have cut off all movement in the area.
An example of the government’s callousness can be seen in Nadhay village — a small hamlet that has been cut off from the state by the landslides. The brother-sister duo of Lakpa and Furkit Tshering run a small roadside tea-shop and had lost their house in the earthquake last year. On record, people whose houses were fully damaged were entitled to an ex-gratia of Rs 50,000 and an assistance of Rs 5 lakh to rebuild their house. But the Tshering siblings only received Rs 15,000; their signatures or thumb impressions were also not taken as proof that they have received the money.
On 20 September, they were faced with another tragedy as the landslides took down their cardamom farm along with their house. A team of inspecting officers came and went away telling them that help would arrive. Till now Lakpa’s family is fending on its own, selling tea to sustain themselves.
What has further muddied the waters is that the latest landslide and floods have come at a time when Panchayat elections are barely a month away and a revision of electoral rolls is underway in Sikkim. North Sikkim is the worst affected in the landslides but there is little political mileage to derive from the region since it has only three MLAs in Sikkim’s 32-member Legislative Assembly.
Panchayats in the region are controlled by members of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front who have been selectively distributing aid money and material to maintain the status quo in the upcoming grassroots polls. Many people, especially in the worst-affected town of Chungthang, have been threatened to maintain a silence or else they would not get any money from the administration. This has led to a situation where despite being at the centre of every natural disaster, politics is dictating humanitarian relief in the area.
This heady mix of intimidation and allurement has kept a check on public outrage and has left residents hopeful that their silence, if not the evident destruction, can get them their due.
IF THE state government is guilty of letting down its own people in times of crisis, this disaster also holds important lessons for the Centre. General Reserve Engineering Force personnel indicate that it might take up to two months to rebuild roads that were constructed in sinking zones and on unstable slopes. At the moment, the road access to India ends at Mangan, a good 60-70 km before the actual border with China. India plans to station an armoured brigade and a mountain strike corps in north Sikkim.
The chief secretary draws a blank when asked about the amount paid to earthquake victims
The bad, almost non-existent, roads mean that the army has to rely on air transport to maintain its bases there. This has become painfully evident in Lachung where the army has a forward base, but has been cut-off from India. During the landslides, an aerial survey showed army trucks at Chungthang and Naga camps. Locals say it is customary for areas like Chungthang and Lachung to be cut-off for months on end due to poor roads.
The tragedy is not just about missing persons or the damage that has been caused. The bigger tragedy is the sheer apathy of the government towards its people who have been suffering since last year’s earthquake that jolted their world forever.
Sai Manish is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.