Editorial: Prepped for Disasters?

Not always all ready. And that is a worry Two years ago, at around this time of the year, a cliff had collapsed in Dzongu. The bhir crumbled at a safe enough distance from the nearest habitation to ensure that no casualties occured. It was however still close and dramatic enough to be captured on smartphones and the frightening visuals and videos were circulated widely on social media. The material loss at Mantam, a habitation of around 24 homes, was substantial. The settlement was battered by the extremely violent headwinds of the landslide, suffered through the confusion of zero visibility caused by the fine-as-talc dust kicked up by the landslide and watched Kanaka, a friendly stream, turn into 3km long lake dammed up behind a nearly 300 feet high dam of debris. Kanaka has since spilled over the debris dam, and although the risk of this artificial dam bursting and causing a flash-flood is now rather remote, the downstream areas will probably not be fully out of the woods. The lake has remained erratic, sometimes full of sand banks and debris, at others a spilling bucket of turbid water. North Sikkim has traditionally been unlucky when it comes to natural disasters, but what keeps things of as even a keel as its situation would allow is the diligence of the officers it has always had in the people’s service. At the end of the day, no one person or set of officers can do much after a major disaster has struck. But when they make the effort and reach affected people despite obvious dangers and difficulties, they reassure them that they matter. And for a people grappling with nature at its most fearsome, such assurances go a long way. It is in a similar context that one needs to see the rush of good Samaritans who had raced to disaster-hit places with relief materials. Even if the relief was collected without checking what the affected area really required, it was the gesture that counted. And then there was also the National Disaster Response Force which was pressed into service. They were unfamiliar with the terrain, unsure of what to do since no rescue was required and their boats unlikely to navigate the debris-heavy lake at Mantam, but seeing these men in their orange overalls busy at the site was a reassuring sight for the people there since it convinced them that they were not forgotten. But all of these were for the immediate days after the disaster. And this is true for all natural disaster events and not just the one at Dzongu. After the adrenaline has worn off and the sympathy wave ebbed, the real task of rehabilitating and adjusting should have begun in earnest. The true mettle of the officers and the authenticity of good Samaritans gets tested then. The numbers in Dzongu are low, so rehabilitation was never very challenging, so what remains of this space can be used to discuss the importance of disaster prevention over disaster management. For a place which has a natural disaster for every season, Sikkim is staggeringly casual about preventive measures. It is also very poor when it comes to mitigation, and it is thanks only to its small size and conscientious officers, that the fallouts of disasters are not much worse than what is seen. When it comes to preparation, the first requirement should be area-specific list of potential threats, preventive measures to keep those threats at bay and a checklist of things to do in worst-case-scenarios. These should be worked in detail down to the ward level, but has obviously not been done at any scale, anywhere beyond documents which speak in vague generalities. These documents should be given to village elders to draft because they know the history of natural disasters in their respective areas, still remember the traditional safeguards the communities had worked into their lifestyles, and, well, will be motivated more by the greater common good than the civil-works priorities which might influence the less public spirited consultants. That is really where Sikkim’s preparation for disasters needs to begin, should have begun rather.