State government finally reacts to ‘crisis’

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Chief Secretary Karma Gyatso along with other officials takes aerial tour of affected areas, relief work still being largely done by locals

Sai Manish
Sikkim

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Disasters often teach a lesson, but last year’s disastrous earthquake seems to have taught little to the administrators of Sikkim. The Sikkim government has finally acknowledged a ‘crisis’ in the remote north of its state. Almost six days after north Sikkim was cut-off from the rest of the country, bureaucrats including the state’s chief secretary Karma Gyatso, along with senior police officials, took stock of the destruction from the sky above.

The state’s lax reaction is a result of its desperation to shift responsibility to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in dealing with the disaster as it is unfolding with each passing day. The BRO is dealing with a mini tragedy of its own—as children of personnel have gone missing in the landslip that hit their outpost on Sunday. Figures available with the collectorate of the affected district indicate a grim scenario—one in which the state government has little clue about the death and destruction in the area it claims to govern. And shockingly this time too, the disaster relief work was left mainly to the locals with young men and women being forced to step in to provide relief and rehabilitation to those affected.

The state government seems to be looking at the crisis with its eyes wide shut. The situation looks as hazy as it looks grim—there are 11 confirmed dead, a large number of families are missing and scores of displaced people are staring at a potential food shortage. In the worst affected town of Chungthang, the private power company Teesta Urja’s sub-contractor has lost two of its workers in a flash flood at the construction site of the 1200 MW Teesta Stage -3 dam. In addition, three workers were injured while one died while he was being taken to Gangtok for treatment. The bridge near the site has collapsed leaving people residing on the right bank of the Teesta in Chungthang stranded. Photos in Tehelka’s possession shows damage to houses near the dam site.

The BRO has been hit badly at Rangma—another devastated village on the way to Chungthang. Eight personnel are missing including two personnel who are missing with their families. More than the BRO, it is the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) which has reported heavy casualties. An officer of the ITBP, Jogender Singh, is missing. It is feared that a jawan along his wife and child have been washed away at Pegong near Chungthang.

Nature's fury Collapsed roads in Lathay enroute Chungthang from Mangan
Nature’s fury Collapsed roads in Lathay enroute Chungthang from Mangan

Eighteen families of both ITBP and BRO personnel are still reportedly missing. The district administration is not yet counting the missing as dead even though many have not been seen since 22 September. No team has been dispatched from either the Centre or the state to see if dangerous landslide lakes have developed in higher reaches. The incessant rain and rock fall have the potential to create large lakes that could burst in the event of more heavy rain and subsequent rock fall, thus endangering the district headquarters in Mangan.

What has come as a shocker though is that the Sikkim government has not airdropped food and medicines in Chungthang, Lachen and Lachung despite reports appearing in certain sections of the media about the airdropping. Gyatso, who flew in 6 days after reports surfaced about the damage, maintains that there is no need to provide food to residents of Chungthang as people of the town have food stocked for two days.

However, the chief secretary seems to be unaware of the fact the there is no access to 4th mile where the entire mountain side has been washed away. 4th mile is a critical point that connects the area to Singhtam and Gangtok –from where the town of Chungthang, Lachen and Lachung get their regular supply of essential commodities such as milk, oil, vegetables and medicines. It is learnt that the people of Chungthang have been left with a few sacks of potatoes and two days’ supply of rice. Gyatso speaking to Tehelka at the Ringim Helipad near Mangan denied that the state government has been late in reacting to the situation. The state government has been claiming that an ex-gratia has been given to displaced people.

A view of the damage from Pegong where an ITBP post was hit with several families reported missing. The Teesta stage 3 dam site can be seen in the background

The state government including its chief secretary, however, pledges ignorance when asked about the amount of money that has been given to the dead and displaced. The relief and rescue in Lachung is being completely done by the Army as it has a forward base at Lachung in coordination with the Indian Airforce.

With time, it is becoming evident that people in the worst-affected parts are running out of time as towns in the remote northeast have been reduced to isolated islands—severed from each other by collapsing blocks of mountains. Even exaggerated claims of re-opening routes fail to excite the locals who have seen another tragedy unfold before their eyes after the devastating earthquake on 18 September 2011. For the state and its people, it’s one deja-vu they could have done without.


Ground report: Landslides wreak havoc in North Sikkim

A year after the massive earthquake, Sikkim is now in the grip of another natural disaster. Landslips have so far claimed seven lives and more than 20 people have been reported to be missing. The situation is growing grimmer by the day in areas that have been completely cut-off from the rest of the country. Sai Manish reports from Mangan

Photos: Deepak Sharma

Incessant and unprecedented rains over the past one week have led to major landslips cutting off the district headquarters (HQ) of Mangan in North Sikkim from the rest of the state and the country. The biggest fears are, however, further north up from Chungthang—the epicenter of the September 18, 2011, earthquake. Reports emerging from Chungthang indicate that seven people are dead and 20 are reported to be missing. It is feared that the death toll may rise as there is little chance of recovering the bodies of those who have been washed away in the raging waters of the Teesta river.

On the way from the district HQ of Mangan to Chungthang, there are massive landslips with entire roads having been washed away by rains or destroyed by massive rocks that have come tumbling down due to the wet subsoil. Personnel of the General Reserve Engineers Force (GREF), which is part of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) that oversees road connectivity in North Sikkim estimates that it might take close to one month to re-build the roads that connects North Sikkim to the rest of the country. National Highway 31-A that runs right through North Sikkim upto the border with China has been destroyed at several critical points, in some instances, with entire mountain sides collapsing taking down the road with it.

District Collector T.W Khangsherpa, Mangan, says that it might take more than a week to restore the road to Mangan from Gangtok as there have been multiple landslides and roads collapsing along the way. Officials of the Sikkim government have been taking stock of the situation, with Chief Secretary Karma Gyatso flying down from Gangtok almost a week after the entire region was ravaged by massive landslips. The state government, till now, has been sending primary health care officials to tackle the outbreak of dysentery and other water borne diseases in Chungthang.

So far Chunghtang has been the worst affected of all places. Among the people who are missing include families of Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel and one member of the GREF has been confirmed dead in Chungthang till now.

Given the gravity of the situation, the state government is mulling over the possibility of requisitioning the Indian Airforce for its Mi-17 choppers to airdrop food and medicines in Chungthang. The roads have been completely destroyed and the Pawan Hans choppers of the state government and the Chetaks of the Indian Army are too small to transport heavy loads for airdropping in Chungthang and other areas that are completely cut-off from the rest of the country. The Mi-17 are based at the Airforce Base at Bagdogra and represent the only situation to ensure that essential commodities are supplied in these areas.

The inhospitable terrain and the relentless rain have so far been impeding a realistic assessment of the damage. But the loss of property may run into several crores while reports of missing people continue to trickle in from far-flung areas beyond Chungthang. There is also a flood situation at Chungthang leaving many people belonging to Lachen and Lachung stranded in the district HQ in Mangan. People of North Sikkim recall that the landslips over the past week are the worst caused due to the merciless rains since 1983. The heavy rains and subsequent landslips have also been exacerbated by the unstable geology of the area. In addition, the damage caused to mountain slopes in the last year by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake are also becoming evident as boulders bearing cracks and unstable mountain slopes collapse like a pack of cards in the unending rain.

Sai Manish is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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