EXCLUSIVE: Sikkim quake rehabilitation. Where did the money go?


The Centre pumped in Rs 400 crore for rehabilitating quake survivors in Sikkim. One year later, they are still desperately waiting for shelter, reports Sai Manish

Nowhere to go A family from Chungthang is still awaiting government help for rebuilding their lives
Nowhere to go A family from Chungthang is still awaiting government help for rebuilding their lives

MORE THAN a year after Sikkim was devastated by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on 18 September 2011, one would have expected the state government to have put people’s lives back on track. But the ground reality is that the quake survivors have been left to fend for themselves, lurching from one natural disaster to another.

Documents and ground reports reveal that not only did the Pawan Kumar Chamling administration fail to utilise existing funds for rebuilding houses, but also mismanaged crores that were received as aid from the Centre, individuals, NGOs and other states in the aftermath of the quake in which at least 111 people lost their lives.

While the priority should have been to rebuild houses, the government played politics while disbursing aid. “The prime minister has announced Rs 1,000 crore financial grant for Sikkim. But till date, we have received only Rs 200 crore. Despite that, we are working on rebuilding the state. Once we receive the full amount, we will be able to work more effectively,” was Chamling’s weak line of defence in March. Chamling and his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) have been in power since 1994.

But Chamling’s claim is highly misleading. Till date, the Centre has sanctioned Rs 400 crore. Half the amount was given within a week of the quake (Rs 50 crore was given after then Home Minister P Chidambaram’s visit on 22 September, while Rs 150 crore was released after a Central team led by Joint Secretary Shambhu Singh reviewed the situation on 29 September). This amount was meant to be used for urgent requirements, including building shelter for victims. This January, the Centre contributed another Rs 200 crore.

Apart from the Rs 400 crore, RTI activists have found out that the CM’s Relief Fund received hundreds of crores as contributions from state governments, individuals, corporations and NGOs. The government has failed to disclose information on the contributions and the CM’s office has been accused of massive misappropriation.

However, before one focusses on the Central aid, it would be pertinent to look at the state’s own funds that it hid from public knowledge and left unutilised even as victims were crying out for help. One of the primary objectives of the rehabilitation process was to provide durable housing and shelter to thousands of displaced people so that they could be shielded from the impending winter. Little did anyone know that people would not just have to brave the winter without a home but also suffer a summer of discontent, a raging monsoon and landslides in the open.

Documents accessed by TEHELKA show that Chamling sat on funds amounting to Rs 211.20 crore that was already there in the state’s coffers and were earmarked for building rural housing for the poorest of the poor. These funds were available under the CM’s Rural Housing Mission (CMRHM) and meant for building 6,000 houses with an envisioned budget of Rs 3.5 lakh per unit. Most of the money was to be used from government funds. In addition, Sikkim had been receiving generous contributions from Centrally-sponsored schemes such as the Indira Awaas Yojana and the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana.

But after the quake, the government feigned ignorance about the CMRHM funds. “There was no shortage of funds. The same money already earmarked for building houses could have been disbursed. Yet top officials kept delaying reconstruction and sat on files for six months making excuses that they were waiting for the Centre’s help,” reveals an aghast state bureaucrat on the condition of anonymity.

IT ALSO seems that the state government had been misrepresenting facts to visiting Central government officials about the CMRHM scheme. Chief Secretary Karma Gyatso told National Commission for Minorities member KN Daruwala, who visited Sikkim between 14-20 June, that close to 6,000 houses had already been built under this scheme. But the reality is that not a single house had been completed even a year after the earthquake.

Gyatso further told Daruwala that kuccha houses were being replaced at a cost of Rs 5 lakh per house. Yet, records available with TEHELKA show that those whose houses were completely damaged in the quake got only Rs 30,000 as compensation.

According to the state government’s own version, this compensation was paid from the Centre’s Rs 200 crore aid. In north Sikkim alone, 6,497 kuccha houses were damaged, including 643 houses that were classified by the government as 100 percent damaged, while 5,398 were classified as having suffered “major damage”.

Under the PM’s Special Relief Package, Sikkim got Rs 200 crore this January, out of which Rs 100 crore was for the Reconstruction of Earthquake-Damaged Rural Houses (REDRH) programme. This too was fraught with dirty politics and inefficiency. The Sikkim government waited till April to announce a rehabilitation scheme.

The government identified houses on a subjective basis determined by political affiliations and votebank politics. A total of 7,972 beneficiaries were to be selected in an undisclosed process with each beneficiary getting Rs 4.89 lakh to build a single-storey house. Even one year after the quake, not a single house has been built.

The sanctioning of houses has purely been done keeping in mind the political mileage that can be derived from aid money rather than a realistic assessment of the actual damage to lives and livelihoods. In Sikkim’s 32-member Assembly, north Sikkim sends just three MLAs, while east Sikkim is represented by 12 MLAs and west and south send nine each.

‘There was no shortage of funds. Yet officials sat on files for months making excuses,’ says an aghast bureaucrat

Despite being the epicentre of the quake and suffering maximum damage, north Sikkim has been sanctioned the same number of houses as the less severely hit, yet electorally crucial east Sikkim. The progress of REDRH in north Sikkim is even more frightening. While 85 percent of the beneficiaries have been finalised in east, west and south Sikkim, only half the number have yet been listed in the north despite bearing the brunt of the damage.

Even in the selection of beneficiaries, the government procedure has been fraught with irregularities and delays. At the receiving end of this apathy have been the Lepchas, a protected tribe from the Chogyal era in Sikkim. Thendup Lepcha is 30 and traded in cardamom grown in his farm at Nadhay near Chungthang. The quake destroyed his kuccha house and this year the landslides damaged his tin shelter in which his wife had delivered a baby. Soon after the quake, Thendup was handed Rs 15,000 and that was it. Thendup and his wife now work as daily wagers, unable to get back to their old lives because not only are they the poorest of the poor, but carry limited weightage in electing legislators.

Houses were damaged in north Sikkim, the quake’s epicentreRs 400 cr
The aid received from the Centre for quake rehabilitationRs 16.88 cr
Compensation given to victims in the worst-hit area of north SikkimRs 193 cr
Budget earmarked for rebuilding a new secretariat in Gangtok0
Dwellings built under the Centrally sponsored REDRH scheme
 “There is no official data on what the actual amount of contributions in cash or kind has been and where these have been utilised. The figures published by the government don’t mention the donations contributed by various organisations and individuals,” says dissident Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) MLA Prem Singh Tamang.
ALL THIS leads to a shocking conclusion. Even if the hundreds of crores received in donations are not taken into account, the government had over Rs 600 crore in hand. However, aid distribution reports prepared by disbursing officers show that the state provided only Rs 16.88 crore to badly-hit north Sikkim, the epicentre of the quake. In contrast, the traditional bastions of the ruling SDF in the eastern, western and southern parts of the state were given the rest of the money.The aid distributed to the worst-hit areas was done in a partisan manner. Notes of disbursing officers show that four families in Chungthang subdivision, whose family members perished, were eligible for Rs 20 lakh (Rs 5 lakh each). But they received only Rs 6 lakh in all. Many such irregularities can be seen with hundreds of disbursements.On the ground, quake survivors have been tricked by a devious classification system used to evaluate damages to houses. The state government used a four-fold classification after the quake:

• Owners of collapsed houses to be paid Rs 50,000
• Owners of severely damaged houses to be paid Rs 25,000
• Owners of houses that had major damages to be paid Rs 15,000
• Owners of houses with partial damages to be paid Rs 5,000

“The distinction between ‘severely’ and ‘majorly’ damaged houses was so thin that officials often recorded the damages as severe, which had an entitlement of Rs 25,000, but paid only Rs 5,000-Rs 15,000,” says Padam Kumar Chettri, state president of the BJP. “The government gave Rs 50,000 to all those who were traditional SDF supporters. Chamling should tell the people of this country, who contributed generously to help Sikkimese people, what he has done with that money if it has not reached the victims. The tragedy is that Chamling has discriminated against victims even though the quake impacted everyone equally.”

Some victims got a raw deal even though the quake impacted everyone equally, says the BJP’s Padam Chettri

The result of the bungling and mismanagement is evident on the ground. When TEHELKA visited Chungthang, the reality was even scarier than what could be interpreted from studying government records on rehabilitation. The entire town is dotted with structures on the verge of collapse, some whose structural damages have rendered them uninhabitable.

Slippery slope A damaged section of the hydroelectric project in Chungthang; a classroom in session inside a tin shed in Rang Rang
Slippery slope A damaged section of the hydroelectric project in Chungthang; a classroom in session inside a tin shed in Rang Rang

Records show that in north Sikkim, the hotspot of destruction, owners of 2,435 damaged houses received an average of Rs 17,000. “As this ex-gratia was given immediately after the quake, most of the people took the money without asking any questions. However, as time passed by and people started rebuilding their lives and houses, they realised that the money they had been given was a pittance compared to the damages they had incurred,” says Tshering Bhutia, a resident of Chungthang.

It is also known that out of the 779 school buildings in the state, 682 were damaged. In Sikkim, since every school starts from primary level, unlike other states, it has left children highly vulnerable to the elements. Near Mangan, the primary school in Rang Rang still operates in a tin shed as students sit amidst water-logged floors and leaking roofs to study. What is even more shocking is that Class I students are housed in classrooms that have damaged roofs and unstable structures.

The laggardly response and corruption in quake rehabilitation comes even though Sikkim was one of the states that was receiving aid from not just the Central government but also international agencies since 2006 to prepare itself for such a disaster. During 2002-09, Sikkim was a beneficiary of the Government of India (GOI)-UNDP Disaster Risk Management programme. Then, from 2009-12, the state also got funds under the Rs 100 crore GOI-UNDP Disaster Risk Reduction programme.

However, the Chamling administration was caught napping when the disaster struck. What has sustained many of the victims in the face of tragedy is the strength of Sikkim’s community-driven society where kinsmen often lend the first and only hand of support due to the near absence of government in many areas.

Sai Manish is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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